Transcript for Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on Democracy

Jim Fleming: Philosopher Cornell West is one of the most visible public intellectuals in the U.S. Tavis Smiley is, after Oprah, the best known black media figure in the country. They co-host a weekly public radio talk show in which they frequently take on the main stream media and the political establishment. Both of which they blame for ignoring the disenfranchisement of the working poor. Steve Paulson talks with them about the state of American democracy.

Steve Paulson: Let me just start with a very basic question and I'll just throw it to either one of you, whoever wants to pick this up first. Are African Americans still disenfranchised?

Cornel West:Well, I think it depends on what you mean by disenfranchised. Look at the legal level, you've got a disproportionate number of felons owing to a racist criminal justice system who are unable to vote on implicating something jobs with the living wage. When you talk about right to housing, still, right to health care , you've been given the new uhh health care bill under the Obama administration. It's certain fundamental rights stipulated by the UN Declaration rights that many Americans don't have, not just black people. And so it depends on what you mean by disenfranchised.

Steve: Mhmm, Tavis?

Tavis Smiley: African Americans, even with a black man in the White House as President, African Americans still lag far behind in every single leading economic indicator category. There's not a single economic indicator category where African Americans do not lag far behind and some weeks ago when that Pew? research study came out, uh Steve talked about the loss of black will. They talked about the have-gots and the have-nots in black and white terms. It underscore yet again  that not only are we disenfranchised, to your question, but we are more disenfranchised now than we've been in a long time. Life for African Americans in this country right now is at Depression era levels. We've been hearing this phrase, you know, this is the worst recession since the Great Depression. We've heard that at across the board. The worst recession since the Great Depression. Well, for black folk, we are now at Depression Era levels and the real danger is that when Obama was ushered into the White House, this conversation began amongst our colleagues, Steve, that we are now living in a post-racial America

Steve: Right.

Tavis: Dr. West and I have pushed back on that consistently. America may be, indeed, is less racist to have elected Obama as President. Less racist, but not post-racial.

Steve: Mhmm. Well, let me ask about that. You both mentioned Barack Obama here. Uh, you know, we've got a black president. It would seem to be the epitome of the enfranchisement of African Americans.

Cornell: Oh, at the legal level, there's no doubt that the election of a variant and charismatic President Barack Obama was a major breakthrough given the history of slavery and Jim Crow. Uh, the problem is he's a I mean, a neo-conservative abroad, neo-liberal at home therefore he's still very much a part of the structural constraints of a system that is fundamentally tilted against poor and working people. So then, again, at the legal level, he represents unprecedented achievement. That's a beautiful thing. That's symbolic. It results from tremendous struggle, blacks, whites, reds, yellows, and others. But when you look at right to jobs with a living wage, right to quality housing, right to health care, right to safety in a community without bullets flowin', you still see a disproportionate number of black folk.

Steve: And uh, how, how much, how much of that responsibility goes to the President, in this case, to Barack Obama? I mean, can you, can you hold him accountable for this? I mean, you know, this it's a huge bureaucracy that he's in charge of. Huge, uh, political problems.

Cornell: My dear, dear brother Tavis Smiley who I'm always so blessed to work with all these 20-some years, he wrote a book called "Accountable". So I think he's got a lot to say about the accountability of the President.

Tavis: I think every person has to be held accountable. When Barack Obama, President Obama, says to black America, as he has said many times, when asked specifically why, he won't address head-on problems that plague the black community. He has said consistently "I'm the president of all America." As if black folks somehow aren't Americans, too. Black folk need to have their issues addressed and, in some cases, redressed, not because they're black, but they're catching the most tail. Because they're the ones most in pain. Because they're the ones who are having lives that are becoming less and less democratized on a regular basis. So that if you were in a car accident, Steve, they rushed you to the hospital with head trauma, I would hope that they would not start operating on your left foot. You respond to where the pain is most acute. And so, in that regard, black folk and brown folk, for that matter, and Native American brothers and sisters are not asking for respect and not asking for resources because they're black, you know, red, yellow, or brown, but because that is where the pain is most acute. Again back to that Pew study weeks ago about where this country is feeling the pain the most. And so, every president has to be held accountable, but I believe that we have to understand that accountability is a beautiful thing. If you ever find yourself in a relationship - personally or professionally - and your partner does not want to be held accountable, get out as quickly as you can. Um, accountability is a good thing in relationships, indeed, for politicians. The bottom line is this: the Dr. West and I have said consistently we're - and this is a Westian formulation, I can't take credit for this because he's in the room, were he not, Steve, I'd tell you this is a Tavis original. I'd be lying. But since he's here, I can't take credit for this, but this is a Westian formulation, where Obama is concerned: "We must respect the president. We must protect the president. We must also correct the president." We always respect the president, and we need to be protected against vicious, vulgar, vitriolic, racist, white supremacist, Tea Party, Donald Trump attacks. We will protect the president. He must always be respected, protected, but also corrected. This President is not Jesus, he doesn't walk on water; he makes mistakes. In many ways he is afraid to address African American issues, to your point directly, because he is afraid of being accused of being tribal. So he gives a standard response that "I'm the president of all of America," and never gets around to really addressing the problems that are acutely impacting African Americans. Although, when gays and lesbians jump up and down about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, - and he should have done it sooner than he did, I'm glad he finally did it - but he responds to that particular constituency.

Steve: And you're saying, you're saying he very rarely speaks specifically to African Americans.

Tavis: Not rarely, never. I mean, it's not a question of rare, it's a question of never.

Steve: So you, you have a real problem with this, uh, you  know, "I'm the president of all America" I mean he is, obviously.

Tavis: He is.

Steve: But you're saying that he needs to do more than that. I mean he needs to address specifically the concerns of African Americans.

Tavis: But any president who says he is the president of all America, means on the ground, that he responds to those who have most money, most resources, and most pressure. So when he goes to business, his round table and says "I am the president of all America," they know exactly what he's talking about, and mainly that he's going to speak to his interest before he speak to the interest to poor people's interest because they have money, resources, and influence. And everybody knows that, so let's just get beyond the rhetoric in terms of this generic formulation of "I'm president of everyone". The thing I think is most upsetting about Barack Obama, and here I think it's a philosophical point about democracy. That we know that the, um, the great contributions of the United States to world civilization have to do with the various ways that we affirm the dignity of everyday people. It could be Emerson, it could be Whitman, it could be Muriel Rukeyser, it could be Louie Armstrong, it could be Duke Ellington, it could be Gershwin, it could be Sondheim, it could be Frank Lloyd Wright, all of these had democratic sensibilities having to do with finding the genius in everyday people, the extraordinary in ordinary people. Well, black people have a tradition from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, of a reconstruction of democracy. It's a matter of what does democracy look like in the tradition of black people struggling against slavery, against Jim Crow, and now against Jim Crow Jr. And when you look at that tradition, King is finally the major figure and Barack Obama mobilized King's legacy and then channeled in neo-liberal-centrist-democratic-leadership-counsel like ways, and that, for me, is a form of political blasphemy.

Steve: Hmm

Tavis: Blasphemy.

Steve: Let me move the discussion away from President Obama and ask a more general question about leadership. Um, how much do intellectuals matter in the struggle for democracy?

Cornell: Intellectuals always matter because ideas matter. I mean, part of what

we're dealing with right now is the triumph of right wing ideas put forward by intellectuals generated by thinktanks and now gaining access in the last thirty years at universities shaping the very narrow corporate media with truncated options and limited alternatives made available to an American people and it's that greed is good.

Steve: So you're saying sort of that the conservative movement - the conservative revolution was founded by conservative intellectuals.

Cornell: Oh, absolutely. I mean, all of this discussion, I mean Wane, Buckley and the others pushing out the free market, unregulated markets, and the unfettered markets. Well, you know, they won. They convinced Larry Summers, they convinced Bill Clinton, they convinced Robert Rubin as well as the disciples of Milton Freedman. And for a while, all of the economists said what? We're all Milton Freedmonians. Well that's an intellectual battle. Now, after 2008, when the Greed is Good model is shattered, right, it became clear that they didn't know what they were talking about. Oh my God, they can't even run the system. These markets aren't self-sufficient at all. Degenerate fraud, indecent action, illegal action, criminal action, so forth so that the battle over ideas is always very, very important.

Steve: So, I guess the question is why? I mean, why did the conservative intellectuals win? Or at least gain the Senate seating right now. I mean, what about the intellectuals on the left?\

Cornell: Well, I mean, one, they uh, the liberals had marginalized the left in the seventies, and the liberal model itself began to be not just interrogating, calling the questions, but was unable to deliver. And the American people are in this yin-yang - if you don't go for the Democrats, then you got to go for the Republicans. So the choice is between well, Milto's liberalism is not working and this federal republican has got a lot of energy and conviction and let's try it out. More and more people opted for the right wing version. Now that's being contested and this is what we mean by decline. You know, what we witnessed in 2011 is the exhaustion, the relative exhaustion of Milton's liberalism, mean spirited conservatism. Where do we go?

Steve: That's a deep question.

Cornell: That's very much what Travis and I wrestled with during the legacy of Martin King.

Steve: Yeah.

Travis: And I think, I think Steve, to build on Doc's point, if anybody can ever build on a brilliant point made by Dr. West, that democracy is in trouble, so long as we think that we can live in a country where 1% of the people own and control more wealth than 90% of the people. My read of history, and I'm so glad you're doing this wonderful series on democracy, because my read of history suggests to me that there is no empire, back to Doc's framework about empire. There is no empire in the history of the world that at some point did not falter or fail. Every empire at some point fails. And I don't know if it is our arrogance, our hubris, our patriotism that is now morphed into nationalism, I don't know what it is that doesn't allow us to even consider that, like every other empire, at some point we could fail as well. This could be the beginning of the end. Now, as you all know, to say that, I'm sure you'll get mail about this when this airs, to say that gets one labeled anti-American. So you gotta be careful about when, where, and how you say that even on public radio. But at the end of the day, every empire has eventually failed. And I believe that this country is one day going to implode, I'll put it another way, get crushed under the weight of its own poverty. If we don;t figure out a way to eradicate poverty, poverty, I believe, is ultimately one day going to eradicate us. So that

Steve: Explain what you mean. How would poverty eradicate us?

Travis: Poverty will eradicate us in that you can't have this gap continue to grow between the have-gots and the have-nots. It can't happen. Dr West mentioned earlier, I think, that at the end of King's life, King was trying to raise this very point. There is no again, no empire, no country in the world. What we just saw in Egypt and in Tunisia and still now, ongoing in Libya,  when you see these uprisings around the world, it happens because the poor at some point get restless. Those who are economically, politically, socially, and culturally disenfranchised eventually get to a point, as I like to say, where they become like Popeye, the cartoon character, "I stood all I can stands and I can't stands no more". And then, with Popeye, out comes the can of spinach. Well, the proverbial, or the metaphorical can of spinach are the protests. People taking - and y'all know something about that here in Wisconsin, you know something about that. But at some point people get restless. People get tired. It was Fannie Lou Hamer who said I get sick and tired of being sick and tired. At some point, people start to feel that, and that's when that energy gets channeled into a certain way. And if you don't address poverty, if you don't talk about eradicating poverty, poverty may end up eradicating your empire. Because at some point it bubbles up to a point where people can't take it no more, if that makes any sense.

Steve: Mhmm, sure. We're running short of time here. A wrap up question. You said earlier the question you two talk about: okay, what's to be done? Huge question, obviously, but for starters, where do you go?

Cornell: Well one is you got to be like the Senator Coburn? and be in contact with the best of the past in order to move forward. That's why the the Whitmans and the Emersons and that's why the Martin King's and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Sondheims make a difference. We're talking about art, we're talking about politics. Young people need to be informed by and inspired by the best and the tradition of those who came before them. And what did they do? They thought boldly. What did they do? They acted courageously and compassionately. And what did they do? They were willing to live and die for something bigger than themselves. Those are all three preconditions for revitalization of any democracy, and if you don't have either one of them, you're gonna lose your democracy and you end up with a crypto-fascist regime. And those folk who struggled in the past, they cry from their graves.

Tavis: My answer simply and quickly is, and I know this may be a pie bringing,

Steve, but we have to have more people who are willing to tell the truth. It's that simple for me. People who are willing to tell the truth. Put another way, people who are willing, and now I don't just mean media people, I mean Americans of every race, color, breed, of every political ideology, of every faith, tradition. We have to have more Americans who are willing to tell the truth about the suffering of everyday people. More Americans who are willing to accept the responsibility to simply say what they see. It is impossible to ook around these days, in this country, and not see the fragility of our democracy. And if we just find the courage, the conviction, the commitment, the character to just tell the truth about what we see - to just say what it is that we see - that at least gets the conversation going. And I trust the American people enough, and I believe in the American people enough that if the facts are put on the table, that if someone commits himself or herself or a network or a newspaper not to cover the horserace, not to cast the story in terms of winners or losers, but to simply tell the truth. Tell the American people the truth and we can figure this out. But this game of winning versus losing, that's what's going to kill us.

Jim: Cornell West and Tavis Smiley are the hosts of public radio's weekly talk program "Smiley and West". Steve Paulson spoke with them. Most Def, from "Raise Hope for Congo".


Comments for this interview

thanks for Demanding Democracy (Mary Milner, 08/12/2012 - 4:01pm)

I want to say thanks for this awesome series. I know the Cornel & Smiley piece was a replay, but it's so powerful it made me cry, even the second time. thank you for this much needed journalism.

Democracy (Vivian Glover, 08/12/2012 - 3:16pm)

Cornel West and Tavis Smily forfeited a significant opportunity to discuss with Paulson (who could have interviewed more current thinkers) why not addressing the socio/economic problems in African American and other minority communities will eventually undermine American democracy as we understand it.

The issues that most threaten this country - underperforming schools, unavailable, inadequate and expensive healthcare, urban environmental challenges, high unemployment among our youth and a struggling economy- are endemic in these communities. And, it is already apparent that these unaddressed issues are adversely affecting this country’s global competitiveness. We can’t afford to neglect the problems and challenges facing minorities.

Instead of once again highlighting and isolating the stereotypical “historic disadvantages of being Black,” West and Smiley should have taken advantage of the broader platform; one with more significance for all of us.

Democracy (karola, 11/29/2011 - 9:47pm)

For years now we had the Best Democracy Money Can Buy. And Money "will kill Democracy" eventually. Who in this Great Contry of our's WANTS TO HEAR THE TRUTH?Lies are easier to follow,even "smart people" believe the lies.