By Carl Dix
A shit storm has been raging around critical comments by Cornel West about Barack Obama’s presidency, in an interview done by Chris Hedges for the online magazine, Truthdig. West has been accused of launching personal attacks and hurling racial slurs at Obama. The attacks on West have had several striking features in common. One is how his accusers have had little or nothing to say about what he actually said about what Obama has, and hasn’t, done as president. The other is how those attacking West have either distorted his history and track record or gone after him like he has neither. (For the interview, go to www.truthdig.com.)
In his interview with Hedges, West bitterly describes Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”
Is this true? Obama is the commander in chief for the U.S. global empire. In that capacity, he has continued much of the thrust of the Bush regime, waging wars for empire, ordering drone attacks that destroy whole villages, carrying out government spying, torture and indefinite detention.
As it says in the 2010 statement issued by World Can’t Wait, “Crimes Are Crimes No Matter Who Does Them”: “In some respects, this is worse than Bush. First, because Obama has claimed the right to assassinate American citizens whom he suspects of ‘terrorism,’ merely on the grounds of his own suspicion or that of the CIA, something Bush never claimed publicly. Second, Obama says that the government can detain you indefinitely, even if you have been exonerated in a trial, and he has publicly floated the idea of ‘preventive detention.’ Third, the Obama administration, in expanding the use of unmanned drone attacks, argues that the U.S. has the authority under international law to use such lethal force and extrajudicial killing in sovereign countries with which it is not at war.
“Such measures by Bush were widely considered by liberals and progressives to be outrages and were roundly, and correctly, protested. But those acts which may have been construed (wishfully or not) as anomalies under the Bush regime, have now been consecrated into ‘standard operating procedure’ by Obama, who claims, as did Bush, executive privilege and state secrecy in defending the crime of aggressive war.” (To read the entire statement, go to www.worldcantwait.net.)
And on domestic policy, Obama has represented the interests of the capitalist class while their system is caught up in an intense financial crisis. This is the backdrop against which Obama has pushed legislation and policies that serve banking and other corporate interests and that has caused severe economic deprivation for the masses. This deprivation includes massive unemployment, a record number of foreclosures and evictions, and cutbacks in all kinds of social services, from education to health. And all this hits minority people disproportionately. While Obama has taken the spotlight off immigration, more deportations have been carried out on his watch than under Bush.
Right-wing forces have continued and escalated their attacks on abortion rights during his presidency. And before him, Bill Clinton did harm on this front, by implying that abortion was morally wrong a stand which Obama has not just echoed but taken further.
And Obama has been singing lead in the chorus that blames poor Black people for what the system does to them. How often has he blamed the poverty and miserable conditions faced by Black youth on absent Black fathers without mentioning how the criminal “injustice” system targets Black men disproportionately and warehouses hundreds of thousands of them in prison? Or blamed Black parents for the high drop-out rates of Black youth while giving a pass to the education system that is geared to fail those youth?
Those slamming West argue that Obama has done the best he can, and that, whatever his shortcomings, he represents the best Black people and progressive people are going to get. They also argue that any criticism of Obama by a prominent voice of conscience like West only aids his right-wing opponents. Instead, people should shut up, get behind Obama and, at most, try to nudge him into a better direction.
But what are people supposed to get behind? Obama’s wars for empire? His attacks on Black people and immigrants? If people fall for swallowing all that because something worse might be waiting in the wings, then the capitalist rulers of this country will ram even worse down their throats. As Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), puts it in his new book BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian : “If you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are.”
What West is really doing in the Truthdig interview is calling Obama out for what he has done, and hasn’t done, in heaping abuse on people in the U.S. and around the world. He has dared to say the emperor has no clothes.
This is consistent with who Cornel West is and what he’s done all his life. He has a history of speaking truth to power, of dramatically telling the truth about the way the powers that be have abused “the least among us.” He tours college campuses across the country to challenge the youth not to become “adapted to indifference” or “adjusted to injustice.” He goes into prisons to meet with, educate and learn from those locked down in this country’s dungeons. He tirelessly speaks out about how Black people and other oppressed nationalities, poor and working people, women, lesbians and gays are being mistreated by the wealthy and powerful. And he bends every effort to forge unity among oppressed groups and between people from different class backgrounds.
Again from West’s interview with Chris Hedges: “‘When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority,’ says West, the Class of 1943 University Professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton University. ‘And even at this moment, when the empire is in deep decline, the culture is in deep decay, the political system is broken, where nearly everyone is up for sale, you say all I have is the subversive memory of those who came before, personal integrity, trying to live a decent life, and a willingness to live and die for the love of folk who are catching hell. This means civil disobedience, going to jail, supporting progressive forums of social unrest if they in fact awaken the conscience, whatever conscience is left, of the nation. And that’s where I find myself now.’”
Cornel West, a widely respected public intellectual listened to by many, promotes critical thinking. He challenges the young generation to have the courage to speak the truth and to be committed to working to alleviate the suffering of those on the bottom of society. He displays a poetic spirit. In his own words, Cornel would describe himself as “engaging in Socratic questioning, being committed to the least of these and being a bluesman in the life of the mind.” All this is why I love this brother so much.
This is also why he has become the target of Obama’s defenders. The concerted chorus of condemnation of West has coincided with indications of widespread unease and dissatisfaction over the actions, and inactions, of the first Black president, among Black people and progressive people in general. Cornel West is giving voice to that spreading discontent in his critique of Obama, and to some that makes him a dangerous man. But those who are still catching hell every day under Obama, just as they have before, and those not willing to swallow their principles and go along with the continuing outrages, should cherish and defend Cornel West.
The attacks on West come down to a concerted attempt to tear down and discredit him among the Black masses and progressive people generally and to place criticisms of Obama’s presidency and exposure of whose interests it is serving outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. On one level, this shores up the prospects of a second term for Obama as president, but on another and deeper level it serves the global and strategic interests of the U.S. imperialist ruling class.
In 2008, Bob Avakian likened the U.S. ruling class allowing/having Obama win the presidency as their global empire faced heavy challenges around the world and domestically, to them playing a major trump in a bid whist card game to try to change the flow of the game. This was gotten into in an article in Revolution newspaper #148: “Tears & Pride, Reality & REAL Change.”
“Anyone on this planet with any sense of the real history and present-day reality of the U.S.A. and how deeply white supremacy is embedded into the operation of this exploitive system… Anyone who knows about the slave master’s whip…the lynch mobs…and present-day reality where any young Black man who steps out of his door faces a death sentence waiting to be executed by a policeman… Anyone who has any sense of this understands and feels the tears and celebrations that met the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.”
The article goes on to lay out the global and domestic challenges facing the rulers of the U.S. Then it says:
“In the face of all this, put yourself in the shoes of those who run this system: They see storms on the horizon, and they have some idea of the pent up anger and outrage among Black people in particular. From that perspective, you can begin to get a sense of why they took what is for them, the major strategic step of turning now to a Black man to represent the interests of this system.
“Obama is not talking about any real or substantial positive changes in the conditions of Black people. The ‘first Black president’ is not a concession to struggles or potential struggles against the oppression of Black people. Study Obama’s actual proposals and speeches. Listen to the theme in Obama’s victory speech, calling for ‘a new spirit of sacrifice.’ Obama is a vehicle to rally America, including those who have been systematically cut out of the so-called American Dream, to identify with the system as it forces people to sacrifice.”
We in the Revolutionary Communist Party, along with a very few others, stood against the wave of Obama mania in 2008. We called out how progressive people who were backing Obama in order to end the horrors of the Bush regime were engaging in wishful thinking and self-deception in “On the Nation’s Open Letter to Obama.” (revcom.us/a/139/Nation-en.html) I exposed in “Don’t Be a Buffalo Soldier” how Obama’s call for a new spirit of service to America was aimed at pumping up Black youth and others to enlist in America’s wars for empire. (revcom.us/a/buffalo_soldiers-en.html) We also spoke to how even before his election, Obama was adding his voice to those blaming Black people for the things the system does to them.
We also said that we would stand together with people to oppose injustice, whatever their position on Obama. Cornel stands out as someone whose principles have moved him to re-evaluate his stance on Obama and to expose, rather than ignore or try to justify, actions which inflict abuse on people in the U.S. and around the world.
Again, from his interview with Chris Hedges: “‘I have to take some responsibility,’ he admits of his support for Obama as we sit in his book-lined office. ‘I could have been reading into it more than was there.’”
Cornel was among the many signatories to the “Crimes are Crimes, No Matter Who Does Them” statement I excerpted above. The attacks being aimed at Cornel are vicious, and people need to support him.
Revolution #235, June 12, 2011
Revolution #235, June 12, 2011