Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cornel West on Obama

First posted on Daily Kos on May 16, 2011.

In a interview with Chris Hedges published on May 16 on truthdig, moral philosopher and democratic intellectual Cornel West speaks openly about his feelings of disillusionment about Barak Obama. While feeling misled by the Obama phenomenon, West also says that he needs to take responsibility for "reading into it more than was there."

University Professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton University Cornell West is no stranger to the now president of the United States, having done 65 campaign events in support for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. But after Obama was elected, he began to realize that things in Washington were not going to be as different as many of Obama's supporters liked to believe:

I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with Lieberman as his mentor. But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’ And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.

West continues:

It became very clear to me as the announcements were being made that this was going to be a newcomer, in many ways like Bill Clinton, who wanted to reassure the Establishment by bringing in persons they felt comfortable with and that we were really going to get someone who was using intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy that we see in the opportunism of Bill Clinton. It was very much going to be a kind of black face of the DLC.

Speaking about his sense of betrayal, West feels that Obama has been swallowed by the oligarchic mentality which pervades Washington:

This 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. 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.

Finally, while not excluding voting for Obama again as a last resort, West contends that perhaps the only hope for a better future rests in third party formations and grassroots movements as well as acts of civil disobedience:

We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful. 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 not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but 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. Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. Tavis [Smiley] and I have talked about ways of civil disobedience, beginning with ways for both of us to get arrested, to galvanize attention to the plight of those in prisons, in the hoods, in poor white communities. We must never give up. We must never allow hope to be eliminated or suffocated.

In the end, Cornel West, has come to the conclusion that Barack Obama did not turn out to be the hope and change that most of his supporters around the world would have liked him to be. As noted earlier, West takes responsibility for projecting a lot of his hopes and aspirations onto a person who, after all, never pretended to be anything other than a centrist pro-corporate Democrat.

On the other hand, it is good that West and other intellectuals are waking up in light of the upcoming presidential election. Perhaps, this awakening on the left will force Obama and the Democrats to do something more than simply pay lip service to a base which has been mostly used and abused ever since Barack Obama has come into office.

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