News & Politics

Matters of Justice

Cornel West discusses what it is we need to confront in order to realize democracy, as well as our need for 'justice, justice, justice.'
Cornel West argues in his new book, "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism," that if America hopes to be a steward of democracy around the world, we must first face up to our own history of imperialist corruptions. According to West, these include racism in America, Christian fundamentalism and its political influence, Israeli-U.S. relations, and the weakness of the Democratic Party. And finally he asks of Americans: Do we have what it takes to be citizens in the ancient Greek vision of democracy?

Cornell West is Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University, after a fairly public exit from Harvard in 2002. The author of "Race Matters," winner of the American Book Award ten years ago, West is a multimedia citizen, featured as Counselor West in "The Matrix" films, and creator of two hip-hop CDs, "Street Knowledge" and "Sketches of My Culture."

Terrence McNally: I’ve heard you describe yourself as “a prisoner of hope.” Welcome, fellow prisoner.

Cornel West: We have to remain prisoners of hope, no matter what. Whether we face a Bush or a Kerry administration in January, we still have to continue the struggle.

What led you originally into academia, and then how and why have you expanded beyond it in so many ways?

I’m always the same person. The academy is one particular rich context in which I’m able to engage in a certain kind of intellectual ferment, but it’s always been one context among others. I’ve always been in the studio, in the nightclubs, in the churches, in the prisons, on the street. I’ve been like that since I was seventeen. I’ve tried to be myself – which is multi-contextual from the get go. ... I’ve always been the same brother I am now.

It appears Lawrence Summers [President of Harvard University] hadn’t figured that out…

Well, he’s got a technocratic conception of education so we had a deep clash. And he was disrespectful. I don’t put up with much disrespect and contempt. Life’s too short for that.

Speaking of “life’s too short” –- in a talk you gave recently, you spoke about Emmit Till’s mother…

Mm-hmm, yes…

...when she saw her son’s body for the first time after he was beaten to death, she said –-

– “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”

Speak a bit about justice.

The important thing with Emmit Till’s mother, she had so much courage. She had a spiritual strength and a moral maturity that allowed her to keep her eye on justice, not revenge. To keep her eye on the ideals that could lure the better angels of her nature, rather than get in the gutter with the cowardly gangsters who had killed her precious son.

I think that’s a real challenge to the Bush administration in particular and to Americans in general, in their response to terrorism. Terrorism is ugly, wrong and vicious, but you don’t want to get in the same gutter as the terrorist to simply reinforce the same cycle of killing innocent people, demonizing others, losing sight of the humanity of others. You want justice, justice, justice.

Emmit Till’s mother was being true to what I call the Jewish creation of the prophetic, that talks about “to be human is to be kind to the stranger, is to live a life of compassion, and to pursue justice,” always an ideal that we attempt to approximate.

May I read to you the final words of my interview last week with Arundhati Roy? They echo yours…

Oh, the great sister Roy, she’s a giant.

She said, “Finally you have to understand that more important than anything else is justice. The way we can turn the world around is if we are at least moving on a path toward justice. Maybe it can never be achieved in any pristine form. Right now, the coalition of the powerful elites across the world are making it very clear that they are not even interested in justice.”

Mmm. That’s powerful.

Clearly this is in the blood.

This is in the blood and the air right now.

"Democracy Matters" –- ten years after "Race Matters." You point out that Americans must confront three big issues if we are ever going to realize democracy.

There are three fundamental anti-democratic dogmas. The first is the dogma of free market fundamentalism that fetishizes and ascribes magical powers to the unfettered market. Deregulate. Privatize. These are the mantra of the day among the elites. And the result is what?

We end up with one percent of the population now holding 48 percent of the net financial wealth, and 20 percent of our precious children of all colors living in utter poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. It’s a moral disgrace.

I’m not even talking about workers being marginalized, not even talking about the ways in which our children don’t have access to high quality education, especially in chocolate cities. We’re not even talking about the forty-seven million citizens who don’t have access to healthcare insurance. We can go on and on and on. This is the internal decay that we have to address in relation to this anti-democratic dogma, free market capitalism.

The other two dogmas are the dogma of aggressive militarism and the dogma of escalating authoritarianism.

The militarism is not just the invasion of Iraq, but it’s the notion of being a military power, and feeling that we can revert to raw force as a means of resolving conflict, and in a unilateral way for the most part..

And it’s the militarization of everyday life. Domestic violence. Cowardly brothers of all colors attacking vulnerable sisters of all colors. The militarizing of our minds. How we live and how we are oriented to each other is inseparable from the imperial identity and mentality that’s emanating now out of Washington.

The escalating authoritarianism has to do with the monitoring of our dialogue. I’m sure you’ve heard of brother Tariq Ramadan, who was supposed to teach at the University of Notre Dame. He had his visa cancelled because the US government does not want to have a robust discussion about what’s going on in the Middle East, about what’s going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So we are unable to be Socratic enough to acknowledge that ordinary Middle-Easterners, be they Israeli or Palestinians or Kurds or Turks or whatever, often have a very different view than their power players, their elites, who are trying to keep them policed as it were. Ramadam’s being able to come to Notre Dame is just the peak of an iceberg. The USA Patriot Act would be another peak.

Free market fundamentalism, the aggressive militarism, and third is the escalating authoritarianism These three dogmas are dangerous. They’re threatening, and it makes democracy matters frightening in our time.

Do you see a force opposing them for the soul and the power of this country? And where do the Democratic party and electoral politics fit?

That’s an excellent question. I think you’ve got short-term and long-term. I think that both parties are part of the problem in the long-term, because both parties are parasitic on corporate interests and powerful lobbyists. They are both part of a government that can be characterized at least in part as legalized bribery, normalized corruption and institutionalized graft.

The question is how do you regulate the big money out of politics so that the voices of the demos from below can be heard? At the moment, I’m part of an anti-Bush united front. I think the Bush administration is so dangerous that, even though I resonate very deeply with my dear brother Ralph Nader, whom I supported in 2000, I’m praying for Ralph but not voting for him this time. He’s an exemplary citizen in so many ways, and his critique of corporate America is powerful. Sister Arianna Huffington puts it so well, “When your house is on fire, you need to put th fire out, not talk about remodeling.”

I support the neo-liberal Kerry. I wish he would find his voice. He probably needs to listen to a little John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughn or Nina Simone, and actually dig deep in his soul to find out who he is, you know what I mean?

My guess is in ’71 he was listening to those folks.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are countervailing democratic forces. Confronting free market fundamentalism, you’ve got the anti-sweatshop movement – a very important global movement. There’s a wonderful book by Andrew Ross on this, "Low Pay, High Profile." You’ve got liberal politicians who can promote regulations to ensure that corporations treat their workers like human beings rather than cogs in a machine.

When it comes to militarism, we’ve got the peace movement on the streets. Very important. Two weeks ago – the greatest mass arrest in the history of New York City. Eighteen hundred people arrested. This is significant. This means that the demos has a certain moral indignation, a deep concern and outrage about what’s going on. And politicians can play a role. Look at Barbara Lee, courageous, standing up all by herself, refusing to vote.

There are countervailing forces against the aggressive militarism and the escalating authoritarianism. The courageous librarians standing up against the Patriot Act. So many academicians deeply concerned about the chills that the Bush administration has sent down the spines of scholars, especially Middle-Eastern scholars when they refused brother Tariq Ramadam his visa.

I tell myself and my dubious friends that emerging uses of new communications technologies can revitalize and redefine the progressive politics of this country and the Democratic party. If the Democrats succeed in this election, they’ll know that the internet was critical.

And let’s give Howard Dean a lot of credit.

That’s right. In 1989 another wave of new communications brought down the Berlin wall, totalitarian Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Let’s have some faith. Am I naïve or is this a real possibility?

I’d never thought about this. Whatever the technology may be, you always need to have people who are courageous, visionary, and willing to sacrifice. It could be a stick in the forest or it could be the internet in your bedroom.

Might even melt things a bit in China so that their political elites would allow for more fearless speech. The internet can actually get through and across national boundaries. I think you’re on to something. On the other hand, the right wing can organize and galvanize on the same internet, and they’ve got the corporate elites feeding them much more money.

Yes, but the money is equalized a bit on the internet.

So we need politicians who will speak from their hearts, but that’s not enough. As I mentioned at the very top, you are asking of American citizens “Do we have what it takes?”

Keep in mind that the politicians are citizens elected by other citizens, who are expected to engage in [fearless speech] if they have the courage to do so. Of course if citizens have such low standards that they no longer require those politicians to be truthful or respectful, you end up with incumbents and bureaucrats who manipulate the population with appeals to fear and greed. Unfortunately that characterizes too much of public discussion in the United States.

People get the democracy they deserve -– or demand.

You contrast two strains of Christianity. You call them prophetic and Constantinian. As Elaine Pagels points out ... a religion of revolutionaries and free-thinkers, which Christianity was, became an authoritarian state religion with Constantine’s conversion. But who is a prophetic Christian?

Certainly Martin King is a grand example, but also William Sloane Coffin of the antiwar movement, then head of SANE, fighting nuclear weapons. He’s a white brother of course. The white Catholic sister, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic social movement. Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Catholic brothers. One can go on and on.

Why do you use the term prophetic to describe them?

Prophetic goes back to the Jewish invention of the prophetic in Hebrew scriptures. It has to do with believing fundamentally that he or she who loses sight of the poor insults one’s maker, he or she who is in solidarity with the poor exalts one’s maker. Proverbs 14:31. Biblical folk, you can look it up. For Christians the Old Testament, for Jewish brothers and sisters, the Hebrew scripture.

Just as Sister Roy says, it’s about justice. How do you care for the most vulnerable? In the words of Jesus, “the least of these,” in Malcolm X’s language, “the ones who are catching hell.”

…and the contrast with the Constantinians?

The Constantinians defer to the empire. We see it today in the market Christianity, the gospels of prosperity, the prayers of let’s make a deal with god, spinning the wheel of fortune to keep up in the rat race. All the paraphernalia of the empire -– power, size, and might become the benchmarks of Constantinian Christian churches.

I see a cynical contract between the Christian zealots and the corporate libertarians in which both sacrifice their own interests in to this alliance. The economic-political face of the nation serves the wealthy and not those working class Christians. The moral and social face of the nation serves a regressive minority that espouses a morality that those rich who use them don’t themselves believe.

It’s true. Many of the Constantinian Christians are working people being pushed to the wall, who will not see that the very elites they defer to promote policies that are doing them in, doing their children in. You hear a lot of people these days say, “Well, I don’t really like either candidate, but I‘ll vote for Bush because he’s a Christian.” I say, “What do you mean by Christian?”

Do you mean someone who spouts pious platitudes and still crushes the poor with policies in which Leave No Child Behind is a slogan, but you withdraw the funds? One who talks about how important fighting for the nation is, but we have a fighting force disproportionately working class, disproportionately black and brown. 48% of the women in the US Army are black women, though they’re only 6% of the population.
We need an army, no doubt about that. It could be rightly deployed to pursue justice. I’m not a pacifist, but on the other hand, we’re asking who’s actually bearing the cost and paying the price? Let’s look at those thousand and more precious bodies that are coming back.

And ask, “Who are they?”

And “Who are their parents?” How come the US government doesn’t want us to focus on them? Why don’t we have a limelight on them so we can see the real cost? We’ll discover disproportionately working class poor, the very ones who are victimized by the pro-rich policies of the Bush administration.

I heard you say somethiing recently that could have been spoken by the Councilor in "The Matrix." After shining a light on a lot of ills, as you have here today, you asked “Where’s the outrage? Where’s the discourse? Or is it that the sleep-walking taking place has become so normative that we feel as if we can’t make a difference.” What is going on?

Well to the question, I think the answer is, we can always make a difference if we muster the courage to think critically, to care for others, and to sustain a hope so that we can organize and mobilize with one another to bring power and pressure to bear on the prevailing status quo.

Thank you so much, brother McNally. You’re a force for good, my brother.

As are you. Thank you.
Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org), where he interviews people he believes can help create 'a world that just might work.'