Read a full transcription of the discussion here, organized under nine headings. –-
No 2698 Posted by fw, January 13, 2021 —
“From time to time, people suggest to me that scientists ought to give more consideration to social problems. … It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put full-time effort into them — the reason being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them…. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” —Richard Feynman, The Value of Science, 1955
Below is the embedded 27-minute video of the Hedges-West discussion of the meaning and significance of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Following the embedded video is my full transcript of the discussion, organized under nine key headings. along with the time that the text accompanying any given heading appears in the video, measured from its 0:00 starting time.
As well, I have added 38 hyperlinks to the transcript: 17 are links to external sources of information about people mentioned by Cornel West or Chris Hedges; 10 links to undefined terms; 10 to books cited; and 1 to a significant event (Unite the Right in Charlottesville).
I choose to keep to myself my opinion of the informative value of the discussion as reflected in the video and my transcript. I leave it to visitors to form their own opinions of the instructive value of the content.
NOTE: Text that appears in [square brackets] has been added by me.
The Nine Headings with Time Index
Here are the nine headings under which my transcription of the Hedges-West videorecorded discussion are organized. To facilitate browsing and selective reading, the time index on the left of the heading — e.g. 1:32 — indicates the beginning time for the described topical heading. (CH initials for Chris Hedges / CW initials for Cornel West)
[1:32 CH — America’s descent into political dysfunction]
[4:02 CW — The historical and moral context of the Capitol Hill riot]
[8:41 CH – Demonizing right-wing Trump supporters as thugs misses the significance of the rupture of social bonds in American society]
[10:21 CW – White supremacists are products of nihilism and neoliberal rule of a predatory capitalist culture]
[14:48 CW – Bankrupt liberalism can be traced to hypocritical American political parties]
[18:26 CW – The danger of a Biden administration]
[21:04 — CW – Huge electoral support for Trump signals the loss of legitimacy for American neoliberalism]
[23:00 CW – Any attempt by Biden to resurrect the Clinton-Obama years would be a sad prospect]
[24:49 CW – Call for the “transformative integration” of the oppressed into society]
Cornel Ronald West (67) is an American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual. The grandson of a Baptist minister, West focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their “radical conditionedness.” A radical democrat and socialist, West draws intellectual contributions from multiple traditions, including Christianity, the black church, Marxism, neopragmatism, and transcendentalism. Among his most influential books are Race Matters (1994) and Democracy Matters (2004).
Chris Hedges (CH) — Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the seizure of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump mob with political philosopher, moral philosopher, Dr. Cornel West.
Cornel West (CW) – I expect to see a slide down a slippery slope to increased repression, increased social misery, increased not just polarization, but gangsterization. And that’s a very sad prospect for the American Empire and democratic possibility. Now, can we turn it around? Well, some of us are committed to turning it around. I come out of the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior and Fannie Lou Hamer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edward Said, Grace Ball [?]. These folk have an unstoppable fire for love of truth and a love of beauty and justice. And so we got to somehow come up with ways in which – following your [Hedges] example and others — we continue to try to be candid about the grimness, and yet, still, always looking for breakthroughs so that the dignity of everyday people – poor and working people, here and around the world — sits at the center of our vision.
[CH — America’s descent into political dysfunction]
1:32 — CH – Enraged supporters of Donald Trump stormed the capital on Wednesday [January 6, 2021] halting counting of the electoral votes to confirm the victory of president-elect Joe Biden. Lawmakers were hastily evacuated from the building. Several people were injured, some seriously, one woman was shot and three <sic> others died.
While Trump and his allies incited and stoked the violence, the occupation of the Congress is also evidence of a deep despair that is gripping huge sections of the working class. In the end, it is not Trump, and the conspiracy theorists who support him, who spawned this attempted insurrection, but the rupturing of social bonds, which is always expressed in self-destructive and aggressive pathologies.
The widespread despair has fostered what the anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls “poisoned solidarity” — the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, racism, suspicion, envy, and the lust for violence and vengeance. Nations in decline embrace – as Sigmund Freud understood – this “death instinct.” No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism. No longer able to build, they confuse destruction with creation. They descend into political dysfunction, fascism and atavistic savagery, something not only Freud but Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi knew lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilized society.
Joining me to discuss America’s existential crisis is the moral philosopher Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and the author of numerous books including Race Matters. So, Cornel, you are one of a handful who has seen this malaise building — this is what Durkheim would call anomie — building over decades, and the political and moral consequences, and I want you to put what happened Wednesday night in historical and perhaps even moral context.
[CW — The historical and moral context of the Capitol Hill riot]
4:02 — CW – Well, one, I just want to begin by saluting you, brother, because your work over the last 30 years, intellectually, politically has laid bare why these chickens are coming home to roost in the way that they are reaping what we sow.
I happen to be reading a text last night. This is the Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America [by Richard Slotkin, Antheneum, 1992]. This is a classic, 1992, [by] brother Richard Slotkin. What is he talking about? Well, he actually gives us a sense of why it is that we [Americans] can understand not just authoritarian populism, but the neo-fascism in the country – the moral regeneration through violence. The very notion that we [Americans] conceive ourselves as the civilized vis-à-vis the savages, vis-à-vis the barbarians — not realizing the savagery is very much in the civilized folk — vis-à-vis indigenous people, vis-à-vis workers, vis-à-vis women, vis-à-vis black folk – all of them viewed as less than human – degraded other. And then the “manifest destiny.”
So he [American] understands America as an “empire.” It’s not a democracy with deficits, it’s a democratic experiment within the backdrop of indigenous people’s lands, dispossessed, their bodies violated. Enslavement of Africans. Subordination of workers. The domination of women. Gays, lesbians, trans.
And, yet, at the same time, he [American] knows there’s a counter tradition. And that’s very important too. There’s way in which we [Americans] can actually grow up and unflinchingly keep track of the barbarism in our midst in order to have more radically democratic possibilities – as in the best of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, the best of [Walt] Whitman, the best of Martin Luther King Junior, the best of Muriel Rukeyser , the best of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
So, what we [Americans] have is an empire in profound spiritual decay, and wrestling with moral decrepitude, with the rule of big money, the rule of big military, a predatory capitalist society that’s commodifying everything. So people, having very little sense of who they are, are sources of meaning in their [own] lives, in the midst of social misery, suffering, decrepit schools, dilapidated housing, massive underemployment and underemployment, hardly access to medical care, especially foreign working people even given Obamacare.
And then the greed of the elite – unbelievable greed of elites. Massive distribution of wealth from poor working people to the top 1%. And the public face – white supremacy – one of the last things you hold on to.
You think about this, brother Chris – I mean you and I, of course, we brothers, we spent such good time together. But, you know, we talked about the neo-fascism – people were laughing at use. People would think “Oh, you’re going too far. He’s [Trump] just a new kind of conservative in the Republican party. Of course he’s a narcissist. Of course he’s a liar.
Now this is much deeper than Trump. This has to do with the whole history of the country – and the worst of it, with as you say, with Freud, and leaving the others. The worst of those deep, barbaric, monstrous forces always just beneath the surface.
And, of course, you know, being a black man in society, you know, slavery and Jim Crow and Jane Crow and lynching, and the new Jim Crow, and the mass incarceration – those are quasi-fascist zones in the history of the nation, from the very beginning. And the slavery being the foundation of the economy for the most part, you see.
So that, on the one hand, I’m never surprised by any form of evil, just as a revolutionary Christian. I’m never surprised by any form of evil. So this kind of neo-fascist public display is not new. I was there in Charlottesville [Unite the Right rally, August 11-12, 2017] with neo-Nazis and the [Klu Klux] Klan. Not new.
But I’m not in any way paralyzed by despair either. Not at all. This is the time to fight. This is the time to look for new possibilities, for change.
[CH – Demonizing right-wing Trump supporters as thugs misses the significance of the rupture of social bonds in American society]
8:41 — CH – I want to ask you about Emil Durkheim’s book on Suicide. It’s [from] the Cornel West reading list – we’re friends and I get free lectures and advice. Anyway, you pushed me to read that book…
CW – You pushed me to read those wonderful texts too. And your list, I love it.
CH – But Durkheim, when he writes about suicide, he – that’s where we get the term “anomie” – he talks about how, when social bonds are ruptured then both societies and individuals begin to carry out acts of self-annihilation. I mean, one of the fascinating points he makes in the book is that those who seek the annihilation of others, these kind of right-wing militia groups, are driven by desires for self-annihilation.
Those rupturing of social bonds, which you were in many ways a voice in the wilderness crying about – even decades ago – I think lies at the core of what we saw on Wednesday night, and what’s happening – 74 million Americans, mostly white, of course, supporting this cult-like figure of Trump, disconnected from reality…
But I found so much of the coverage – I don’t know what you thought – where they were demonized as thugs – which is not in any way, of course, to condone their activity – missing the point that there was complicity within the ruling elite and within the Democratic Party establishment for what happened — and the core being the rupturing of these social bonds.
[CW – White supremacists are products of nihilism and neoliberal rule of a predatory capitalist culture]
10:21 — CW – I think you’re absolutely right, though, brother. I mean about 17 years ago when I had published Democracy Matters when I talked about there’s hardly a democracy left because of the nihilism, the various forms of nihilism*, the notion not just the might makes right and greed is good, but the massive shattering of families, communities, bonds, networks – so you end up with not just isolated, narcissistic persons, but you also end up with persons unable to provide…unable to generate any kind of story to live by, unable to situate themselves in the national narrative that has any connection with reality. I think it is a profoundly nihilistic moment. And nihilism is a lived experience of tremendous wound and hurt. [*nihilism – different forms hold that human values are baseless, life is meaningless, knowledge is impossible]
I mean, when I was there in Charlottesville, when I looked in the eyes of the neo-Nazis I saw deep wounds and hurts and joylessness and lovelessness, and a search for meaning. They just hated me. They wanted to kill me. But I could still understand the ways in which they were very much a product of a predatory capitalist culture that is just money, money, money, money. And they actually were being subjugated in their own distinctive ways. They just happened to be vicious white supremacists as well. And I think that’s in part what we’re dealing with.
Yes, Trump certainly is a symbol and a sign and a symptom. But neoliberal rule has helped create the conditions for the kind of neo-fascist authoritarian populist, whatever language you want to use, in the ways in which the unbelievable contempt that people have across the board for neoliberal elites, for the professional classes, for the chattering classes, for the educated classes.
When the Tyranny of Merit that brother Michael Sandel talks about in his book, or The Cult of Smart that brother Frederik de Boer talks about in his book – both of those have to do with the arrogance, the self-righteousness, the self-indulgent sense of entitlement that is so indifferent to the plight and predicament of poor and working people, but it’s always tied on the right wing with the white supremacist public face.
There’s no doubt about it. And it is profoundly white supremacist but it’s not just that. What you usually have in corporate media is just the recycling of a certain neoliberal identity that is Manichean,* we’re on the good side, they’re on the bad side. Yes, they [white supremacists] are on the immoral side. But, it’s so much deeper than that and I would just recommend the readers to your work from Death of the Liberal Class [by Hedges] and various other powerful texts, Christian Fascism that you talked about [See for example, Christian Fascism in the USA]. That [Christian fascism] was at work yesterday [at the Capitol Hill riot] [*Manichean adj. – related to dualism or conflict between opposites, e.g. good coming from evil, such as economic growth is bad]
*** SHORT BREAK ***
13:53 – CH – Welcome back to On Contact. I want to talk about the liberal class – again you just recommended this great biography of Dostoevsky, which I just finished. And Dostoyevsky understood the danger of a bankrupt liberalism* – Notes from the Underground is really about that. [Cornel West holds up the book] There you go. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. Great intellectual biography. They don’t write them like that anymore. [*liberalism — a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law]
Dostoyevsky’s right. Dostoyevsky saw bankrupt liberalism. I think again that this is a theme that you have hit repeatedly as an engine towards the rupturing of these bonds and the rise of these nihilistic, violent movements. Can you speak about that.
[CW – Bankrupt liberalism can be traced to hypocritical American political parties]
14:48 — CW – Well, when you think about the greatest novelistic tradition in the modern world, which is the Russian tradition. Turgenev understood that [bankrupt liberalism], Dostoyevsky understood that, Tolstoy understood it, Chekhov understood it. They were understanding the ways in which people must have a sense of connecting their self-respect with a community, with a tradition, with a heritage — in the face of markets, in the face of bureaucracies, in the face of nation states – there had to be some kind of enabling, cultural matrix, some structures of meaning and feeling that allows to get people make their move from wombs to tombs.
Now, of course they were doing this in the context of a Russian empire that was already smothering a Russian nation. The folk themselves were massively oppressed and dominated. And early on they were tied to French, whether [the] well-to-do spoke French, but, sooner or later, the discovery of the folk, and then on to the revolution, and then, of course, we can tell stories about [the] domination of Lenin and all the way up to Putin. But the crucial thing is that Dostoyevsky becomes indispensable in understanding the civil war taking place, on the souls of people given commodification, and given the collapse of the national narratives.
I mean it’s very interesting, Biden gets up and talks about a narrative that was true for the 1950s – “We are the city on the hill.” Oh yeah, uh-huh, you just supported the military coup in Honduras, and you think the Honduran people are going to view you as some kind of democratic example? We know the history in Iran. We know Guatemala, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. We go on and on, and on. What 267 interventions in 67 cities since 1945. That’s American foreign policy.
But then on the other hand you get Mitt Romney – “We can’t have self-government without a commitment to truth.” When was the last time… — not Mitt Romney – Mitch McConnell — “We can’t have self-government without a commitment to truth.” Politics can’t be just a matter of power. He’s the example of the most raw commitment to power that we have.
Here comes Schumer: “The most important thing is democracy.” Since when has the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, with neo-liberal policies, not been tied to big money at Wall Street, and Pentagon militarism. So people are… the nihilism is overwhelming because people are saying: “My God, this hypocrisy is out of control. This greed is out of control. What are the countervailing forces that allow us to fight against it?”
Fewer and fewer. And that’s part of our challenge here and around the world. Fewer and fewer. How do you hold on [to] the honesty, decency, kindness, commitments to justice, and being unflinchingly candid about the grimness and yet still being willing to muster the courage to hold on to a love of truth and goodness and beauty for a Christian like myself, the holy of God.
18:04 CH — I want to ask you about Biden. He reminds me of [Franz] von Papen. He takes power in 1932. [There’s] a sense von Papen wants to bring back the Ancien Régime, this kind of utopian conservatism. This seems very much what Biden is attempting to do in the Democratic Party hierarchy. What’s the danger of that?
[CW – The danger of a Biden administration]
18:26 — CW – It’s just that it’s… My Bible tells me that where there is no vision the people perish. I mean, brother Biden, I voted for him as you know because it was an anti-fascist vote against the neo-fascist gangster Trump. But I know that Biden, you know, he’s got blood on his hands in terms of mass incarceration, in terms of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, in terms of the unleashing of Wall Street greed, repeal of Glass-Steagall. All of those are recognitions of his past, and the ways in which he is very much a creature of the past in terms of his vision – it’s not a question of age, because Bernie Sanders is about the same age but he’s very much a creature of the future in terms of concern about poor working people and what can be done in a radically democratic way.
And so here, you know, we’re stuck with this nostalgic, mediocre president. He might be able to be pushed the way Lyndon Baines Johnson was. We’ll have to see. I want to give him a chance. But it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t look good, especially when you look at his cabinet. I mean his cabinet is still so tied to Wall Street and tied to the Pentagon war profiteering, the Secretary of State. Sister Janet Yellen in many ways… I mean we know what $7 million dollars being paid from lectures [to] Wall Street in the last three and a half years. Is she going to be fair to the poor and working people? I want to give her a chance. I’m not holding my breath.
We wonder whether the American democratic experiment is just running out of gas. Whether it’s heading towards self-destruction because it’s willful blindness by greed, and it’s willful ignorance by contempt for poor and working people. [Whether it] thinks that somehow it can muddle through. No. These chickens have now come home to roost in a very, very powerful way. In an ugly way.
20:28 – CH – In many ways Trump did not create the phenomena. I remember Fritz Stern telling me once – the great scholar of fascism – that there was a yearning for fascism in Germany before the word “fascism” was invented. The disappearance of Trump doesn’t really solve the problem — 74 million people voted for him despite four years of racist tropes, ineptitude and utter failure to deal with the pandemic. We’re talking about almost half the electorate. What… [crosstalk]
[CW – Huge electoral support for Trump signals the loss of legitimacy for American neoliberalism]
21:04 — CW – That’s true: 53% of white sisters; more than 1 out of 3 Asians; 1 out of 3 Jews; more than 1 out of 3 Latinos; 28% of our precious queers did; 18% of black men did. See, that’s a collapse of an empire in which neoliberal rule has lost its legitimacy. They’re looking for an alternative. Bernie Sanders got crushed by the neoliberal centrists of Obama and Biden and Pelosi and others, an people’s frustrations, their desperations then get filtered in a neo-fascist way.
In some ways, October 1922* is also worth taking a look at. And that march from Naples to Rome of Mussolini. What can you say? We need a myth. We need illusion? Forget about truth. Forget about facts. This is the way you do it. A strong man can do it. Democracy might look good in theory, it is always a failure. It’s only by means of a strong man mobilizing his own populace, and militia, and so forth and so on. And then, as you know, the capitulation of the king, and the next thing, in a matter of 10 days, he’s now a ruler of Italy. [*October 1922 – Mussolini took power in Rome] And of course the Churchills, the Thomas Edisons and others are saying – even Freud himself – calls him [Mussolini] the great hero of culture — was very popular in the 1920s in the West.
22:33 — CH – In many ways the disappearance of Trump and the rise of a figure like Tom Cotton, maybe Mike Pompeo, or maybe someone we don’t know, is more dangerous because they would competent as a fascist. Trump has no attention span, no organizational ability. If Biden continues to essentially do a reset of the Clinton-Obama years, what do you expect to see in the United States?
[CW – Any attempt by Biden to resurrect the Clinton-Obama years would be a sad prospect]
23:00 — CW — I expect to see a slide down a slippery slope to increased repression, increased social misery, increased not just polarization, but gangsterization. And that’s a very sad prospect for the American Empire and democratic possibility. Now, can we turn it around? Well, some of us are committed to turning it around. I come out of the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior and Fannie Lou Hamer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edward Said, Grace Ball [?], and these folk have an unstoppable fire for love of truth and a love of beauty and justice. And so we got to somehow come up with ways in which – following your [Hedges] example and others — we continue to try to be candid about the grimness, and yet, still, always looking for breakthroughs so that the dignity of everyday people – poor and working people, here and around the world — sits at the center of our vision.
CH – Isn’t it about reintegrating the working class? And we didn’t speak about the black working class which has suffered far worse than the white working class, but just, I would argue, the systems of social control, mass incarceration, militarized police are so draconian, especially in urban centers, they’ve been able to keep that class in check.
But if we don’t reintegrate those people back into the society, that really calls for new deal type programs, this divide is probably going to grow wider and wider. Would that be correct?
[CW – Call for the “transformative integration” of the oppressed into society]
24:49 — CW – Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, for example, of the work that we’ve been able to do together in prisons, though brother, your magnificent teachings there, it’s what I would call a transformative integration into the system, which is to say to gain access opportunities, but access and opportunities that allow for a change and transformation in the system itself. Because what often happens is the neoliberal version of identity in which you get a colorful black, brown, red, yellow class hierarchy, an imperial hierarchy all over again.
We want black folk, brown folk, yellow folk, women, poor folk, to move in a system in order to change it and transform the hierarchy itself, here and abroad. And that’s a larger project, but it’s a vision that worth holding onto. And holding onto with tremendous tenacity. And it means, of course, that many of us are going to be misunderstood, misconstrued, lied on, objects of character assassination or literal assassination, because this is part of what it is to be human. It’s part of the history of the species. Most of the history of the species is one of domination and hatred and envy and contempt. And you have resistance and resilience in the face of those things.
Of course, a Christian like myself, you know, it’s a matter of following Jesus into the temple to run out the money changers, brother. And then the American Empire, you know, that temple, which is the largest edifice east of Rome at that time with the troops and the banks – It means Wall Street, Pentagon, White House, Congress, Hollywood, Harvard, Princeton – all of those major institutions of the ruling class, and some decent individuals in all of them, but the dominant tendencies of those institutions – greed, arrogance, condescension, indifference to the suffering of everyday people, of those the great Frantz Fanon called “The Wretched of the Earth.”
We’re going to raise our voices. We’re going to raise our voices, and we’re going to be part of movements.
CH – Great, Thank you. That was Dr. Cornel West about American anomie and resistance.
27:05 – THE END
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