Days of Revolt: The Black Prophetic Tradition

Yves here. In this Real News Network interview, I wish Chris Hedges and Cornel West had defined what they mean by “prophetic tradition,” since they assume viewers are familiar with their positions. Nevertheless, this notion is useful as a way of identifying the ideas and images that have helped oppressed people develop the will and the means for taking action against their oppressors. One of the problems with soi-disant progressives is that, as Richard Kline put it,

At best, progressives seek to convert. In the main, they name and shame—ineffectively. American ‘progressives’ distrust political power, period, are queasy about anyone having it, and suspicious toward anyone who actively seeks it, including other putative progressives. The contest as progressives conceive it is fundamentally a moral one: they believe they are right, and want their opposition to see the light and reform/conform. Thus, they don’t frame what they engage in as a fight but rather as a debate.

The concern with morality leads to a desire for purity and a tendency to force-fit messy problems and political landscapes into a black/white frame. By contrast, effecting change means being willing to make compromises, to settle if you have to for “good enough now,” recognizing that there are real costs to staying with the current trajectory.

This site has a analytical bent because we believe in getting policy right, and are concerned that a lot of superficial approaches not only run the risk of making things not net better (or being cleverly co-opted by incumbents to cut the pie even more in their favor. But at the same time, people are spurred to action not by appeals to the intellect but appeals to emotion. A true “prophetic” orientation would envision a desired future state and be flexible as to the means (tactics and policies) for getting there. As West puts it:

How do you straighten your back up? How do you tell the truth? How do you bear witness? How do you organize? How do you mobilize? How do you generate forms of resistance and resiliency in the face of some very, very ugly forms of terror and trauma and stigma?

This interview also places Obama in a black intellectual tradition that West calls neoliberal. I might prefer a different name for the antecedents, simply because one of the salient, and arguably most prominent feature of neoliberalism is the belief that market are virtuous and are the solution for any problem. The fixation with markets is a recent phenomenon. And the fact that individuals who participated are trained to see themselves as atomized negates the sort of consciousness and community-building that Hedges and West see as paramount.

CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. The song you’ve been listening to is by Willie King, Willie King and the Liberators, “Terrorized”, written after the events of 9/11 in response to the outcry, mostly by white society, that this was the first attack of terror on American soil. King sings, don’t talk to me of terror, I’ve been terrorized all my days.

I’m here with Dr. Cornel West, that great defender of the black prophetic tradition, I think the most important intellectual tradition in American society. And we’re going to discuss that tradition as he’s laid out in his great book Black Prophetic Fire.

Thank you, Dr. West.

WEST: What a blessing to be here with you, my dear brother. I salute your wonderful new show, Days of Revolt, also your powerful new [incompr.], The Wages of the Rebellion.

HEDGES: Thank you. Well, you’re my first two guests.

WEST: What a blessing. What a blessing.

HEDGES: So let’s talk about this. In the book you profile some of the great figures of the black prophetic tradition, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, of course, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells. What is, how do you define the black prophetic tradition?

WEST: Well, I think in many ways it’s embodied in that wonderful song by brother Willie King and the Liberators. If the blues is defined as a personal narrative of catastrophe lyrically expressed, then what you really have, you have a catastrophe of white supremacy, slavery, the catastrophe of Jim and Jane Crow senior, the catastrophes of Jim and Jane Crow juniors. And the black prophetic tradition is simply one that says in the face of that catastrophe, we’ve got to analytically understand it, we’ve got to prophetically bear witness, and we’ve got to generate forms of fightback that organize and mobilize, beginning on the chocolate sides of town, but also embracing all freedom fighters of all colors. So a Frederick Douglass working with William Lloyd Garrison and Ida B. Wells working for antiterrorist, antilynching groups, not just here but in Britain as well, all the way up to Malcolm and Martin and Ella Baker, so that in a sense what we’re really saying is that these towering figures who exemplify integrity, honesty, and decency, that they’re trying to get us to come to terms with a people, my own folk, my tradition, who’ve been terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized for 400 years.

And here’s the best of the response. Black church, prophetic, antiterrorist institutions, black music, prophetic, antiterrorist, anti-trauma. How do you straighten your back up? How do you tell the truth? How do you bear witness? How do you organize? How do you mobilize? How do you generate forms of resistance and resiliency in the face of some very, very ugly forms of terror and trauma and stigma?

WEST: One of the things about the black prophetic tradition which I look at as somebody who writes a lot about empire is that that has been the major intellectual force in American society in terms of its critique and understanding of empire, I think largely because African Americans have suffered internally the effects of empire, so that they understand externally what poor people who are subjugated, often poor people of color, are enduring on the outer reaches of empire.

WEST: There’s no doubt that when you wrestle with the vicious legacy of white supremacy, that you’re going to sooner or later have to engage in a critique of capitalism, of imperialism. You hope that you get the vicious legacies of male supremacy and homophobia. But you’re going to–it’s going to situate you right at the center of the operations of power in wrestling with his legacy of white supremacy.

Now, there are some and too many black figures that want to say, well, the original sin of America was slavery. And that’s a lie. That’s not true. The white supremacist beginnings of this nation really had to do with indigenous peoples, a violation of their humanity, the dispossession of their lands, and so on. But it’s true that enslaved Africans will become the generators of wealth based on exploited labor. That will be the precondition for American democracy, so that when you look at genocidal attacks on the one hand and enslavement of Africans on the other, you’ve got two fundamental pillars which constitute the lens through which you look at the history of this nation. And that’s the best of the black prophetic tradition.

HEDGES: Which is why the black prophetic tradition has traditionally been antimilitarist.

WEST: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

HEDGES: And that’s been, I think–well, I don’t know if you would agree, but I think that’s been one of the most important contributions, because we have very few critiques of imperial power. We did through figures like Debs and through some of the anarchists, but there’s been a consistency with the black prophetic tradition that has warned America, I think, about its adventurism and its notion of exceptionalism and its propensity to use violence, both internally and externally, to promote its supposed virtues.

WEST: Absolutely. Look at somebody like Ella Baker, who deserves so much more attention. She spends so much of her years, her later years, with the Puerto Rican independence movement with Albizu Campos and Oscar López Rivera, still a political prisoner today. She makes the connection between struggling against white supremacy in the States and struggling against U.S. colonialism on the island of Puerto Rico. So that critique of empire, white supremacy, always interwoven, always intermingling in the best sense.

But I think in our day and time, though–and this is what this book is very much about; it’s a love letter to the younger generation in our age of Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland and Oakland and so–and Charleston, North Charleston and Charleston. And what I mean by that is to say, young people, you are waking up in a magnificent way from your sleepwalking. But there’s a magnificent tradition that constitutes wind at your back.

You’re not going to get it in corporate media, you’re not going to get it in mainstream discourse. The neoliberals who dominate corporate media, they want to financialize, privatize, and militarize. Lo and behold, the black prophetic tradition says, no, we’re critical of pro-Wall Street policy that generate more capitalist wealth and inequality. When it comes to privatizing, no, we want public life. We want a sense of what we hold in common, including at the workplace vis-à-vis bosses, oftentimes just run amok with corporate greed. And the same would be true in terms of militarize. That’s part of the anti-militarism that you rightly talk about that goes hand-in-hand with anti-imperialism.

And so somebody like Martin King, who of course reaches this point with tremendous eloquence in the last three years of his life, what does he have to do? He has to cut against the grain: 72 percent of Americans disapprove of him; 55 percent of black people disapprove of Martin.

HEDGES: And you write in the book, since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., it is clear that something has died in black America.

WEST: Absolutely. Absolutely.

HEDGES: What’s died?

WEST: What died was a sense of we consciousness. The market mentality took over, the I consciousness, the narcissistic, predatory, careeristic, opportunistic proclivities took over.

HEDGES: How did that happen?

WEST: It, one, was the vicious attack on the black freedom movement, of which they either killed so many of the leaders or they incarcerated so many of the leaders. And what was left–.

HEDGES: Which–and I think we should stop there and just say we’re talking about hundreds, hundreds, which I think most people who don’t examine the system of mass incarceration–we still have 150 black revolutionaries–Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom you and I visited–.

WEST: Absolutely, with brother Jim Cone.

HEDGES: You–with brother Jim–great theologian James Cone. But we have–there was a conscious effort by the state to destroy those torchbearers.

WEST: Absolutely.

HEDGES: And they did.

WEST: Well, they didn’t destroy them. They pushed back.

HEDGES: Or silenced them, let’s say.

WEST: That’s right. They pushed back, because, I mean, Mumia Abu-Jamal is still as strong. We know that. Assata Shakur is still strong in Cuba. There are a number of powerful, grassroot, local activists who are still strong.

But in terms of the national presence of the black prophetic tradition, look at Jeremiah Wright. Vicious attacks trying to demonize him and somehow dampen his spirit as we moved into the culmination of the highly individualistic, narcissistic proclivities of black professional class, which is, of course, the first black president.

HEDGES: Well, and you’re very critical of this class, and you see it as a very destructive force. Would it be fair to say that there are two principal strains, the black prophetic tradition and the Booker T. Washington accommodationist tradition? Would it be too much of a stretch to say that figures like Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, Mr. Coates from The Atlantic, who you have called out, I think, recently, do they veer more towards the Booker T. Washington tradition? Or is it different? They’ve certainly walked away from the black prophetic tradition.

WEST: Yeah, they certainly walked away from the black prophetic. I think what you get, though, the black neoliberal tradition, which would still not necessarily be the same as Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington really goes straight to Clarence Thomas. He’s actually deeply conservative. He did some wonderful things for black people on an individual level, with Tuskegee, with white money, and so on, but he’s deeply conservative. He’s anti-labor, his anti-immigration, and so forth.

HEDGES: Well, he–and he would not announce lynching.

WEST: Edit least publicly he wouldn’t–and therefore Ida B. Wells has to run right into the fire with unbelievable courage.

But, no, the neoliberal one is one that comes out of the civil rights movement, in which you get the formation of a black professional class that acts as if they’re prophetic, who really convince themselves they’re progressive, when in fact they’re so tied to capital–.

HEDGES: Right. The lumpen bourgeoisie.

WEST: The lumpen bourgeoisie. Absolutely.

HEDGES: Is that a Cornel West term?

WEST: No. That comes out of E. Franklin Frazier’s great text The Black Bourgeoisie. You see. Absolutely. It’s a middle-class beneath the American middle class, with less capital, less credit, less power.

HEDGES: But its aspirations–.

WEST: But the aspirations are intense and want to somehow act as if they’re tied to Malcolm. I mean, the peace by brother Coates a few years ago said that brother Barack Obama was part of the culminating expression of Malcolm X, now, that is about as wrong–that’s like saying I come out of the Beach Boys. You know what I mean? And Malcolm’s legacy had nothing to do with Barack Obama.

Barack Obama comes out of a highly cultivated black professional class that’s tied to neoliberal policies of Wall Street domination, drones, which are U.S. war crimes, massive surveillance, so COINTELPRO on steroids, every day, keeping track of what we do and so forth. What that is is in fact a culmination of not just black professional class; it’s a professional class in contemporary monopoly capitalist America, you see. And so it’s pro-imperialist. It acts as if it’s antiracist. And it is antiracist within a very narrow bourgeois liberal order. But when it comes to massive unemployment, massive underemployment, decrepit housing, dealing with this unbelievably–what’s the right word with our educational system? Let’s say soul-murdering educational system, you see. Where is the structural critique? Hardly at all. And when it comes to the Middle East, for example, if you can get a black neoliberal to say that the killing of 500 precious Palestinian babies is a crime against humanity, it would be fascinating to see that take place. It will never take place.

HEDGES: You write that Obama displaces, is part of this process that’s displacing the black prophetic tradition. And one gets a sense from your book that you’re worried that–you know, and you certainly stand up in defense of this tradition, but one gets a sense from the book that you’re worried that these forces are so powerful that they may extinguish it.

WEST: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why I fight so vehemently. You know, people say, oh, you hate the president. No, no, no. I love black people, I love black freedom, I love the black prophetic tradition. And when you have someone who is displacing it–and this is true for intellectuals as well, neoliberal intellectuals who act as if they’re coming out of the black prophetic tradition, and in fact they are calling it into question, and oftentimes suffocating it, if not destroying it.

And see, for me, that means I’ve got to come out swinging, come out swinging, you see. Why? Because, one, it’s the tradition that produced what I try to do in my life. Black people themselves, especially the black poor, especially the black masses, always connected to other poor, other masses, here and around the world, it’s the only real hope that we have of telling the truth, bearing witness, and making sure that the Jamal and Leticias on the corner are not overlooked as the black professionals that breakdancing at the top as they break glass ceilings day in and day out.

HEDGES: Well, you also write–and I think this is true, that–the primary tradition that has contributed to the renewal and regeneration of American democracy.

WEST: Oh, yes.

HEDGES: And I think that’s right.

WEST: Oh, yeah. Oh, no. The black prophetic tradition, the black freedom struggle is the leaven in the American democratic loaf. You see, when you have a conception of democracy from the vantage point of the slave, then it looks different than Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder. Then it looks different from George Washington, slaveholder. It looks different in Abraham Lincoln, who fought colonization of black people, going to other parts outside of the United States up until 1862.

So when you have that conception, then you’ve got what Du Bois, the great Du Bois, called the reconstruction of freedom, the reconstruction of democracy from the vantage point of those below. And we must also, of course, always embrace our indigenous brothers and sisters and make sure that their land rights, make sure that their humanity and dignity are thoroughly affirmed.

HEDGES: Which makes Du Bois maybe the most important intellectual in American history.

WEST: He is the greatest public intellectual in the history of the American empire. No doubt about it.

HEDGES: Because like the Jews in Europe at the time of fascism, he had that intellectual brilliance, which you carry, but also as a black man stood far enough away from the centers of power, and was certainly by the end of his life a victim of that power, that he understood how power worked in a way that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr I think finally did not.

WEST: Well, James Cone’s laid bare the truth about Reinhold Niebuhr. There’s a wonderful play by the great Amira Baraka, the last play that he wrote I just saw just a few weeks ago, The Most Dangerous Man in America, is about Du Bois’s trial, February 1951, when he comes in in handcuffs at the age of 83 years old. Hardly anybody would touch him. NAACP has already kicked them out. Why? Because he says, I’m not going to capitulate to the Cold War and become just a domestic liberal; I am a freedom fighter with connections to various freedom movements in Africa and other parts of the world.

HEDGES: Well, and we should be clear, and I can’t remember whether it’s from this book or not, but the NAACP was set up as a counterweight to more radical elements, and in particular the Communist Party.

WEST: After World War II, Gerald Horne and Robin Kelly and the other fine truth telling historians lay it out. And when Paul Robison attends the 31 Grace court in Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, the best borough in the world, it’s just the two of them, Paul Robison under house arrest. The most popular Negro in the world in 1939, he’s under house arrest. Du Bois basically under house arrest, passport taken. They’re in dialog. There’s John Killens. There’s Harry Belafonte coming in every once in a while. That’s the Du Bois, that is the Paul Robison that our young folk in Ferguson, young folk in Baltimore, they need to be attune to the vision and courage, because we are catching up with them. The American empire is in deep trouble.

HEDGES: Can I read this passage from “The Souls of White Folks”, from your book, by Du Bois?

WEST: Sure. Yeah. It’s Du Bois’s language. But yes.

HEDGES: It’s Du Bois. It’s Du Bois.

WEST: That’s right. The great Du Bois.

HEDGES: “It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this rôle. For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred,–making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike,–rather a great religion, a world war-cry. . . .”

Now, Muslims in the Middle East would understand that language.

WEST: Oh, absolutely. And that is the terrorism that brother Willie King’s singing about with such power.

HEDGES: But it’s a terrorism that Americans are largely–

WEST: In denial about.

HEDGES: In denial, and certainly the corporate media institutions have blocked from view quite effectively.

WEST: Absolutely. Absolutely. But we’re living at a time in which with this escalating visibility of police terror and police murder, with hardly any police going to jail, no serious accountability, and most importantly with the marvelous new militancy of the young brothers and sisters of all colors, but disproportionately chocolate, who have broken the back of fear–you see, once you break the back of fear and say, I am not afraid any longer, I am willing to bear witness, put my body on the line, go to jail–and this is exactly what we’ve seen.

HEDGES: But that killing’s not new. I mean, for decades black people have been–I mean, American society, maybe because of video that’s been leaked, you know, they’re shocked.

WEST: That’s right.

HEDGES: But black people have been killed at this rate for decades.

WEST: Absolutely. But when you have a wave of resistance–you see, we just had the wonderful march at Newark, my dear brother Larry Hamm, People’s Organization for Progress. We’re going to have a major march here in New York city October 24, brother Carl Dix and myself. And even my dear brother Minister Louis Farrakhan, who is controversial, especially among a lot of progressives who wonder why it is that the minister Louis Farrakhan still has a presence, but he has a strong presence in terms of keeping track of the terrorism coming at black folk. He’s going to have a 20th anniversary of the Million Man March that’s part of all the different, ideologically variegated expressions of how do you keep track of white supremacy and its ugly effects, you see. That’s escalating.

And that’s a beautiful thing, because the system now is just decrepit. You know, the two-party system is as weak as it can be. You’ve got escalating ecological catastrophe. You’ve got increasing nuclear catastrophe. You’ve got the economic catastrophe in terms of the wealth inequality that brother Bernie Sanders and others talk about. You’ve got the moral catastrophe of–.

HEDGES: He won’t talk about empire, though.

WEST: Now, we’ve got to put some pressure on brother Bernie in that regard. And I think that–.

HEDGES: And he won’t talk about the Palestinians, and he won’t take on the military.

WEST: I think he’s more and more open to a critique of the Israeli occupation. I think he at the same time has to somehow walk a tightrope between the liberals who are excited about him. But thank God he’s talking about Wall Street domination.

HEDGES: He’s raising real issues. Yes, he is.

So I want to close this segment. We’re going to talk in the next segment about what’s happened to the black prophetic tradition. But you have a quote in the book where you write about Ella Baker as saying that political change is not primarily politically motivated. And I think one of the strengths of the black prophetic tradition is that it–especially because it has confronted these frightening monolithic forces–white supremacy, lethal violence, terror itself, discrimination in all of its forms, institutional, economic–it sustains itself finally through an element of faith. And I wonder if you could address that.

WEST: Yeah. I think that when you talk about loving poor people, loving black people, loving gay brothers, lesbian sisters, and loving Palestinians vis-à-vis Israeli occupation, or loving Jewish brothers and sisters vis-à-vis a Hitler, that that’s not just a political resistance. That’s a deep moral and spiritual form that highlights power and the operations of power. And there’s no way you can sustain your movements over time based solely on political calculation or motivation. Something deeper–compassion, empathy. And for my tradition, the black tradition, because music has been the privileged form of expression, there’s a sonic dimension to it, you see, so that the Donny Hathaways and the Marvin Gayes and the Nina Simones and the John Coltranes and Max Roaches, they are as much love warriors and freedom fighters as was Malcolm X, as was Martin Luther King, as was Ella Baker.

HEDGES: Which is–and Baldwin, when he writes about Malcolm, he writes about how gentle Malcolm was.

WEST: Absolutely.

HEDGES: And he was one of the gentlest people he’d ever met.

WEST: Absolutely.

HEDGES: And I think they gets to the core of it, because when you love those people, you cannot betray them.

WEST: You can’t betray them.

HEDGES: And if you can’t betray them, it doesn’t matter what they throw at you. And that is the power of, I think, your work and is the power of that prophetic tradition.

WEST: Which is the power of the tradition I’m just a small part of. But I’m going to go down fighting defending that tradition, even given the folk who try to lie about it.

HEDGES: Thank God you’re here. Thank you very much.

WEST: Yeah. Well, I’m blessed, I’m blessed, my brother.

HEDGES: So stay tuned. We’re going to come back next week and talk to Dr. West about what’s happened to the black prophetic tradition, the assault that has been carried out to essentially shut down its voice, and why he is one of the very few standardbearers left in that tradition. Thank you very much.

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  1. YankeeFrank

    What I was saying the other day about how we’re going to have to get more “shrill” if we’re going to change things, I chose that word because it was the word used to describe Parramore’s piece, its not the word I would necessarily choose, but my meaning was that we have to use emotional arguments, not just logical arguments, in support of the morality of what we’re fighting for, because at the root its a moral, spiritual cause to fight for the rights of the oppressed, be it the economic, political or physical aspects of that oppression, that fights from a position of love and emotional commitment for a belief that there is a moral right, a higher law that is worth fighting for, that there is right and wrong and not just “homo economicus” and greed and selfishness. Indignation, outrage, is the proper response when faced with the disingenuous arguments in favor of letting economic criminals commit extreme, predatory economic violence and looting that ruins the work of lives, families and communities, using specious and glib arguments to defend the indefensible.

    People like Cornel West, Chris Hedges, Bill Moyers, and perhaps most importantly at this time, Pope Francis… and also, Yves Smith, are leading us towards the light, towards justice. I was suggesting that Yves Smith should not be afraid to get angry, to get “shrill”, to express indignation at the blatant looting and theft, economic and ecological degradation and atomization at the core of the neoliberal project.

    1. John Zelnicker

      “…my meaning was that we have to use emotional arguments, not just logical arguments, in support of the morality of what we’re fighting for, because at the root its a moral, spiritual cause to fight for the rights of the oppressed, be it the economic, political or physical aspects of that oppression, that fights from a position of love and emotional commitment for a belief that there is a moral right, a higher law that is worth fighting for, that there is right and wrong…”

      This is the reason the progressive left continues to fail in its battle with neoliberalism; you can’t use logic to argue successfully against emotion and ideology. While I’m not into “shrill” either, we progressives have got to start emphasizing the moral imperatives of community; that the people of this nation (every damn one of us) need to stop being so selfish and realize that we are all in this together and we need to work together and take care of each other, like we once did. There IS such a thing as right and wrong and right now a lot of what’s going on in this country is wrong.

      1. jrs

        So you plan to guilt people into supporting your cause. Talk about a reason to fail ..

        I’m okay with appealing to people’s interest, neoliberalism never WAS in the interest of the 99s. Any leftist movements that have succeeded appealed to people’s interests, now they can appeal to people’s interest in a spirit of solidarity (class interests), as without solidarity nothing would be achieved, but it was seen as representing people’s real interests nonetheless.

  2. MikeNY

    Wow, thanks so much for this. I am hypnotized by listening to Cornel West — in the best way.

  3. Peter Everts

    Cornel West has always been at the leading edge of reality regarding black exploitation and degradation. As a Caucasian, I am angered at many of my race for their continued, obstinate and ignorant (hateful) clinging to racial stereotypes and blatant evil intent. Would that the populations of the world only “grow up” and discard evil intent for those who are different in any way.

  4. Clive

    Superb — and while you sort-of know it almost in a subliminal way, it is rare to have it explicitly captured like this — analysis of the (as is put) anti racist but in a very narrow bourgeois liberal order anti racism of Obama.

    It’s worth dwelling on this. Any “anti-” you care to mention (be it anti racism, anti sexism, anti homophobia, anti catholic or anti Sally or whatever) which fails to address itself to income, opportunity, health, education or many other factors besides inequalities is almost certain to border on tokenism. I now find myself taking a leaf out of Lambert’s book in considering my reactions when presented with the onslaught we get saturated with of various “pros” and “antis” this’es or that’s and ask — what are the policy responses, exactly, and how are their effective outcomes being measured and guaranteed ?

  5. diptherio

    The prophetic tradition comes from the Jewish/Old Testament tradition, and is based on figures like Hosea and Amos. The prophet doesn’t necessarily predict the future, but rather calls out society at large for its failings and injustices and warns of divine retribution if the people do not return to the righteous path. These societal denunciations are often made despite dire consequences to the prophet himself (don’t know of any traditional lady prophets…); as they say, “a prophet is never without honor, except in his own land” (often as not, the prophet is not heeded by the people they are addressing who, predictably, end up suffering as a result). Dr. King and Malcolm are exemplars of the tradition in the US.

  6. Eureka Springs

    Hypnotized yes… much like a sedative. 99 plus percent of people would have to spend at least a few hours looking up terms and the people mentioned to begin to make sense of the discussion. All of which might be a good idea but people are busy, it ain’t gonna happen. I’ve been a leftish voracious reader for fifty years and I hardly know who and what they are talking about.

    And they just have to kiss a war-mongering neoliberal democrat even if they are doing it despite Sanders proclivities. Destroying all their humane credibility in fell swoop.

    1. Chris B

      I suggest you move on from “Lefty material” and start reading Anarchist material if you want to be exposed to what they are talking about.

      Or maybe it is just not the way you are supposed to get the message. Revolt can be expressed and communicated in many ways; music, food, living it, etc…

  7. Ulysses

    Cornel West never ceases to amaze me with his wit, compassion, and humor in the face of enormous adversity! Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

    “I mean, the peace by brother Coates a few years ago said that brother Barack Obama was part of the culminating expression of Malcolm X, now, that is about as wrong–that’s like saying I come out of the Beach Boys.”

    1. alex morfesis

      he does come from the beach boys…

      well I thought there was hope for the real news network…putting on the black donald trump might get some eyeballs but is not useful…all talk no do…and much distraction as to reality…
      dubois spent a lifetime pushing back “the negro”…made it his lifes work to destroy marcus garvey to the point he made sure his friends the black female dentists, the delany sisters, the sisters of a politician who was almost passing, opened their practice in the same building marcus garvey had used as his operational headquarters, and made sure he was photographed sitting in “that” second floor window…dubois was a sadistic old fart who only grew some when his cojones stopped working and he was old and way past his sell by date…

      there are plenty of black authors on this planet…buckwheat should not grace the table of anyone wanting to have a serious conversation about blackness…

      well east coast girls are hip, i really dig those styles they wear…

      sorry about the vitriol…but please pay no attention to the lightweight behind the curtain…

      it was paul robeson who slowly over the years forced dubois to man up…

      did dubois ever argue black folks should keep money in black banks like other ethnic groups do and have done in america..??? has cornelia west ??

      all talk no walk…what did louisa ferryman do with hundreds of millions of dollars of property he bribed his way into control off from the estate of elijah mohammed ??

      sorry…there is plenty of black history to talk about…west needs to keep his white coffeehouse crowd mesmerized with big words and small actions…and zero facts…but he says it with such passion…

      1. Ulysses

        You are of course entitled to your opinion! To change the subject a bit, who do you think Chris Hedges should be talking to? Please remember that Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey, and Malcom X are all dead — so, apart from the unlikely event of a séance, CH would have to find a live person, not so contemptuous of “the white coffeehouse crowd” to even agree to be interviewed by an ofay, corporate sellout like Mr. Hedges!

        1. alex morfesis

          timuel black in chicago would be a good start…he is still breathing…nuri madina in chicago…jim brown…rachal robinson…people who actually have done more than just given lectures…and have made actual personal sacrifices…ilyasah shabaz…

          1. Lambert Strether

            Timuel Black:

            Timuel Black was a high school teacher and president of the Chicago chapter of the Negro American Labor Council. At a national board meeting in January 1963, A. Philip Randolph, the NALC president, proposed a march on Washington to pressure the federal government for more aggressive civil rights and job-creation policies. “Those of us who were there looked around and said, ‘How in the world is he going to do that?'” Black remembers.

            Always entwined…. civil rights and job-creation policies.

            I don’t want to put work on your desk, but since you’ve done the reading, in future a quote with a link from any of these thinkers and writers would not go amiss (if topical), just to spread the word.

            I’m inclined to like West because he called out Obama, like Black Agenda Report. But if there’s better to be had out there, I’m all for it.

      2. Chris B

        Garvey was a capitalist and a separatist. Those are huge ideological differences from DuBois;s views. Those fights and disagreements? Growing pains, that’s all…

        1. alex morfesis

          the new negro has no fear

          that was the rallying cry of marcus garvey…dubois rallying cry was…passing can be so much fun…

          marcus garvey has been presented as a separatist…but he was anti british and decolonialist…his argument was that africa belonged to black people and economically should be controlled by black people…if you poke around at the ucla archives on garvey you might find a british report blaming him for helping supply irish revolutionaries with arms…not too many black folk in ireland last i checked…

          growing pains…yup…like dropping the bomb on nagasaki…just to solidify our relationship with japan

          1. Chris B

            No, growing pains like trying on pants that are way too tight and you have to take them off and try a new pair.

            Garvey was not presented a separatist, he was a separatist, to say that he was anti-british is only looking at the glass half full rather than half empty and might make you feel better but it changes nothing.

            Garvey saw the Irish rebels as heros and a model, nothing more. He most certainly was not inviting the Irish to Africa.

            But his real problem is that he thought race was a real thing instead of a trait. It is economics that oppress people, the traits just make it easier for the bean counters to oppress.

            1. alex morfesis

              hmmm have you actually ever read anything marcus garvey wrote…

              he was all about economics…and to try to reduce the millions of people who were listening to his message…the idea that africa for africans was a racist chant…was put out there for display…

              Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s father was sent north to Harlem…to disrupt Marcus Garvey…you really have no idea how big Marcus Garvey was…and still is in the minds of many outside the USA…

              UCLA has a great set of records run by Prof Robert Hill… I suspect you will be shocked by the sound of the voice of marcus garvey…not the uneducated loaf that has been pushed forward by the emperor jones noise many equate with Marcus Garvey…his son is still alive…quite the accomplished medical professional…Dr. Julius Garvey…

        2. alex morfesis

          malcolm “x” shabaz parents were garveyites…his father killed for it and his mother locked up in a mental ward for it…robesons brother at the mother ame church in harlem was a huge garveyite supporter…and even dubois was forced by Robeson to support garveys widow and causes in London after Marcus Garvey had died…

      3. vidimi

        divide and conquer, divide and rule.

        MLK was uniting the country, which made him an existential threat who had to be killed. but the feds learned that it’s easier and safer to let rifts between different factions, despite striving for the same outcomes, take care of their enemies, hence pouring fuel on the fire between malcolm x and the NoI.

        people like you have the choice of focusing your energy on real enemies or taking the bait and fighting against the wests and dubois.

  8. human

    That’s Paul Robeson (silent e) please.

    Thanks for this transcript. It would be front page news in a civilized society.

  9. tim s

    I have great respect for Cornell West and Chris Hedges, but the repeated mention of white supremacy as a root of the problems they discuss I think is misplaced. These struggles are better described as class struggles and have been throughout the ages and in all places, with few exceptions.

    I think we rightly recognize the neoliberal mindset as the common thread among the global overclass/oligarchy that is working so feverishly to grab everyone and everything for themselves, and this network is hardly all white. It is a network of narrowly defined mutually beneficial relationships that changes continually, but is ultimately based on individual greed for money/power. But even these types of networks have been behind all previous empires. When it was the British empire oppressing the Irish, was it white supremacy? How about slavery and represson that doesn’t involve whites at all?

    White supremacy seems to emanate mainly from the white underclass, who are looking for their own flag to rally around in an attempt to pull themselves up as a group.

    No doubt that if one were to grow up in the USA as something other than white, it is an easy conclusion to come to that the problem is white supremacy, but to continue to see this as a root of the problem risks losing focus on the real target in the struggle.

    How many thought that with the election of (finally) a non-white to important positions of power (say President, Secretary of Homeland Security, Supreme Court, US Attorney General, etc), that the curse of white power will finally be broken, and that it would all be rainbows and kumbayah from here on out? That couldn’t be further from the truth. It turns out that people of all colors take to a system of empires like a fish to water.

    The primary focus of the struggle for humanity as many of us see it has to be how to contain the types of people who would conspire to take all for themselves and leave only a wake of ruin. No easy answers for this one, since it has never been accomplished before, but no need to make it harder that it needs to be by setting up imaginary dragons to slay.

    1. Inverness

      I disagree that white supremacy is primarily a tool of the white underclass. It just looks that way. Actually, the moneyed elite are pushing white supremacy in so many hidden, insidious ways that I can only briefly mention. The school to prison pipeline, urban schools, gerrymandering, anti-labour laws, the push to privatize everything, unfair mortgages, gentrification…these are all elite tools to keep African-Americans (as well as almost everyone else) as poor as possible.

      1. gordon

        Looking on from afar (I’m not an American) it has always seemed to me that black/white division among the poor was a useful tool for the US ruling class. Martin Luther King was assassinated just at the time when it looked as though he might be able to bridge the racial divide among the US poor. Some coincidence.

        1. tim s

          That is true. There was a post by Mark Ames yesterday that did a great job of showing how much of a primary tool promoting racial divides and race baiting has been for US capitalists.

          Of course, pitting one group against another by the powerful is not limited to the US.

  10. Roquentin

    The single most important thing to remember when reading/profiling/trying to understand Chris Hedges is that his father was a preacher and he studied at the seminary. Chris Hedges is essentially the secular equivalent of a preacher, and all the good and bad that goes along with it. This is why he is concerned with moral purity above all else and relatively uninterested in practicality and actually achieving an agenda. Even his loathing of state power in all its forms flows from this, as the church traditionally considered itself above the dirty business of running the state. Hedges has something to say, to be sure, and his perspective is generally worth paying attention to, but I have major theoretical disagreements with him in the bigger picture….much in the same manner you described above.

    Not coincidentally, this is why the heading of this interview is the “prophetic tradition.” He’s trying to find a future for Judeo-Christian ethics independent of the religious milieu in which they were created. He very much considers himself as a continuation of that perspective.

    There’s no shortage of philosophical/theoretical critiques of this sort of thinking from figures as diverse as Nietzsche (obviously no fan of Christianity) and Marx. This is a gross oversimplification, but you can’t only concern yourself with keeping your hands clean. That’s what the focus on moral purity often ends up in practical matters.

  11. washunate

    …a lot of superficial approaches not only run the risk of making things not net better (or being cleverly co-opted by incumbents to cut the pie even more in their favor…


    For my two cents, that’s exactly why moral principles are so critical to the foundation of specific public policy advocacy, why we should be cautious about those advancing compromise for the sake of compromise.

    Compromise can be great where the underlying principles overlap. However, it can be terrible where they do not, entrenching the basic injustice and oppression by legitimizing it.

  12. John Mc

    Black prophetic tradition — i.e. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, bell hooks; often originating in churches, where sermons the vehicle for creating social change. Speaking truth to power, and doing so with emotion, and evidence. This tradition is noteworthy as it is one of the few places and spaces where the oppressed can unite, and discuss the pain, the experience and the process of subjugation in order to change it….

    Yves, I have several responses to your post.

    First, I am grateful for the link to the video as well as the challenges posed to the West-Hedges wing of the progressive resistance. Criticism makes us all better if we heed and use it in constructive ways.

    Second, I really like how you have been pounding the pavement with the soi-disant intellectual progressive criticism — of the failure in trying to convert (a problem probably linked to and reliant upon the church-based charismatic figure model often associated with liberation theology and the black prophetic tradition). In other words, I think your experiences in the financial world unlocks a key problem for progressives as you have stated before —- the enemy knows how far most progressives will go — and they have developed tactics for the soi-disants. In fact, one of the few historical events that has really scared them is when Czar Nicholas and their family were murdered. It took blood. Now, I am in no way advocating for violence (do not believe in it as a first order operative strategy), but we would be naive to believe that change will occur without sacrifice.

    Third, I am not so sure that West’s calling Obama a neoliberal is problematic. While I am sure you have considered this thoroughly, my specific reticence to challenge West’s voice here has to do with Phillip Mirowski’s book, Never Let A Crisis Go To Waste, and The Road to Mont Pelerin. The origins of the neoliberal thought collective are rooted in a powerful network embedded in Western white supremacy (originating with Lippman — although not a long term member), and several strains of neoliberal thought (from France, Germany, Austria, and the US).

    These neoliberal economic, political and social systems had to be constructed — as the NTC was about as popular in the late 1940s/early 1950s as polio. The fundamental driver of neoliberalism, a fixation on markets, is intertwined with several ideas like:

    Complexity — too much to know, too much information for individuals “market as a computer metaphor”
    Rationality — consumers act in their own best interest assumptions — pure hogwash, but legitimates
    Financialization — Debt as Tool of Subjugation (Hertz) & Capital cannibalizes itself – (Lapavitsas)

    So when I think about Obama, coming from the University of Chicago, alliances with the party machinery, Rahm, and Big Banks —- I think a few of these phenomena are recent, but mostly since the Powell Memo and rise of neoliberal thinktanks/corporate universities, we are seeing different mechanisms of delivery and seizures over the levers of power — but as Foucault reminds us —

    “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”

    And my thesis is that this Oz — all knowing metaphor for markets, is a cover for raw oligarchic power.

    We should put a name to the problem —- for me, it is the neoliberal world view. Would be interested in reading your further critiques on these issues.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks for your detailed comment. I didn’t say that Obama is not a neoliberal. Lamber, Matt Stoller when he was writing for this site, and I have been saying that Obama is a neoliberal for years.

      What I objected to was a much narrower point: West tried depicting Obama as coming out of a neoliberal tradition. Huh? Neolibearlism is a relatively new idea, that of markets uber alles. Now it is fair to say that neoliberalism build on older threads of conservative thought, but neoliberalism only goes back to 1980s at best. “Neoliberal tradition” is an oxymoron.

      1. skippy

        Agree that “Neoliberal Tradition” is a bit wonky in its application out side a more granular unpacking Yves, tho one could reasonably argue the 20s were the theoretical application of the same dogma [David M. Kotz].

        Skippy… something about not wanting to use history as an optic thingy….

  13. tommy strange

    Excellent. and I love that both are embracing and recognizing the long tradition of anarchism, that demands compassion and love (if there is solidarity among us) and these bonds can be unbreakable even in the most dire situations. Look at the Kurds today in Rojava. Look at Chiapis. This is when I still want to fight. reading stuff like this, from people that ‘use to be’ members of the elite.

  14. Deloss

    I apologize in advance, Yves, but this post does not make my mouth drop open in worshipful amazement. When West talks about “my dear brother Minister Louis Farrakhan, who is controversial,” it sets my teeth on edge. Some of us remember that Farrakhan said that Malcolm X was “worthy of death.” Whether he himself personally had anything to do with the murder has not been settled.

    And Farrakhan is on record with the usual pious mouthings: that he “prays for forgiveness” for his part in Malcom’s death, and hopes that Malcolm’s daughters will attain “healing.” This is the same sort of blather that comes out of Republican mouths when they offer “prayers” for the victims of gun violence.

    Farrakhan, from my POV, is not controversial. He’s settled. It makes it difficult for me to take the rest of their conversation seriously.

    1. James Levy

      Your statement reminds me of a woman I heard on WBAI in NY back around 1989. She was responding to criticism of Winnie Mandela for her “necklaces” speech (where she endorsed filling tires with gasoline, putting them around the necks of “traitors” real or imagined, and lighting them on fire). The woman said, “How can I criticize a sister who is out there on the front line fighting Apartheid?” My answer, yelled at the radio, was “when she’s advocating vigilante murder you can!” But for West blacks exist in the same space that Israel does with a great many Jews–you don’t dis the tribe, you don’t turn your back on “the brothers”, no matter what heinous crap they do. The only blacks you can denounce are those you perceive as “traitors”, like Winnie Mandela did. West doesn’t see Farrakhan as a traitor to the race, so he’s OK by West. Sad and depressing, but I’d bet my money true.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Why are you straw manning our actions? Putting up a video or a cross post has never said that the content warrants “worshipful amazement”. It merely means we regard it as useful grist for thought.

      1. Deloss Brown

        There was no intent to “straw man” your actions, Yves. I don’t even know what you mean.

        Calvin: “I like verbing nouns. Verbing weirds language.”

        Random quotes form the posts:

        “This is why he is concerned with moral purity above all else and relatively uninterested in practicality and actually achieving an agenda.”

        “Cornel West never ceases to amaze me with his wit, compassion, and humor in the face of enormous adversity!”

        “Cornel West is America’s leading living intellectual.”

        Perhaps “worshipful amazement” is the wrong description for these brainless mouthings, but life is short, and I don’t have time to think up more apt adjectives and nouns. I admire Malcolm. I cannot admire, or view with anything but hatred, the blather of a man who contributed greatly to his murder. I feel the same way about anybody who wishes to hold that murderer up for admiration.

        I am glad that NC has devoted some space to the subject of race relations, but I do not think that every exponent of the inequality of the races should be viewed as a new Einstein, any more than I think Donald Trump should be viewed as a feminist because of his attack tonight on “political correctness.”

        Confusion to our enemies.

        1. OIFVet

          Nobody’s perfect, and Cornell West is no exception. But I will always remember that he had the guts to call out Obama when no other high profile black figure would. That must count for a little something.

          Here’s my Farrakhan story. I’ve lived in Hyde Park for more than 20 years now, and Farrakhan and his top lieutenants have mansions in Kenwood, close to Obama’s as a matter of fact. There’s always a few vehicles filled with large Nation of Islam bodyguards parked on the street by his mansion. Way back then I had an old Civic with manual, with the clutch connected to the pedal by a metal wire. That darn wire snapped right in the intersection in front of Farrakhan’s mansion, stranding me and my friend right there. We got out, so did Farrakhan’s bodyguards, looking rather menacing as they approached us white devil teens. It’s fair to say that we pushed that little Civic hatchback as though it weighed nothing. Those bodyguards of his were universally disliked for their aggressiveness toward anyone who dared to take a longer look at that mansion. I suppose that’s how Farrakhan can sleep well at night despite his role in the murder of Malcolm X.

          1. MikeNY

            “Nobody’s perfect” — this.

            MLK wasn’t perfect, as has been well reported, and I hold him in as high esteem as vidimi. To my mind, West speaks ‘uncomfortable truths’ that need to be said, he does so eloquently, and, so far as I can tell, out of a spirit much closer to love than to hatred. I respect that. I believe MLK would respect that.

      2. Deloss Brown

        My final word: if I was offensive to you in any way, Yves, I sincerely apologize. I have been reading your blog since I started work at Fixed Income Credit Derivatives at Citibank, to try to find out what the hell it was I was doing (the devil’s work, as it turned out), and I admire, respect, and try to circulate your work. It was very late, and L*** F*** makes me see red.

        No response to this feeble email is necessary, obviously.

        Confusion to our enemies.

  15. craazyman

    Oh man. I’ve noticed black people aren’t as black as they used to be. No more Afros and pick combs in the jean pockets. That was the old days. Now they have short hair and wear suits and ties. In New Yawk anyway. It’s hard to tell whose black and who’s white. It all goes away when a man has Edward Green shoes and an ascot. Maybe it’s just “The Look of Money”. What is that by the way? haha

    I’ve noticed that. You notice things if you look with honesty. You get surprised.

    These dudes are fossils bound in time. It’s like listening to a radio from the 1970s. You can on Youtube! That’s pretty cool. Nothing dies on Youtube.

    Prophecy is humble, colorblind, personal, transcendent, gnostic. It speaks directly from deep reality. That’s what makes it powerful. Prophecy doesn’t have a color or a sex or a religion or an occupation or a costume. It doesnt’ have a brother and a sister. It’s everybody all at once and through all time. That’s the only way it can possibly work.

    But if you want politics, you can put clothes on prophecy and plant it like a scarecrow. Then you can bow down and call it a god. People do it all the time! It’s easy.

  16. Jack

    I’ve always found Malcolm X to be a rather pathetic figure. He was suckered in by an insane cult and spent much of his time saying extreme, provocative things (many of which, to be fair, needed to be said). He never actually accomplished much of anything, eventually fell out with the cult, and spent his final years humbly trying to reestablish connections with all of the more moderate voices he had mocked and turned away previously. And then he was killed, far too young, before he had formed those new alliances and set about actually achieving any meaningful progress.

    At most he indirectly aided the real achievers by representing an extreme fringe that The Powers That Be didn’t want in charge, forcing them to accommodate people like MLK.

    1. vidimi

      i think that’s unfair.

      i think MLK was possibly the greatest american of the last century, but you can make the case that he was more pathetic in the end. murdered by the empire he spent the last years of his life rallying against, he was succesfully co-opted by it without the empire having to change a thing. MLK is an american hero, whose values america claims to represent. that is a pathetic legacy, imo. at least MX can’t be co-opted like that.

  17. Inverness

    Cornell West has the charisma, warmth, and intellectual heft that any social movement desperately needs. He can also speak in a very accessible manner as well. What I really appreciate is his emphasis on spirituality and music. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance at your revolution, don’t invite me.”

    1. James Levy

      The problem is he’s not very intellectually hefty. He tends to free associate and make statements he can’t or won’t back up. He draws comparisons and makes analogies that sound terrific but can’t be substantiated, which is what you have to do if you want to show intellectual heft. Many things he says sound plausible, but then you try to connect the dots and there is no way to establish the causality or relationship he implies. He’s been slaughtered in academia for this. Some of it may be attributed to whatever dark motive you like, but the evidence for this pattern of makings claims and statements that don’t really hold up all that well has been established and verified. As one of my undergrad professors told me 30 years ago: “If you want to be a socialist, you’d better be right.”

  18. vegasmike

    Chris Hedges said he is a preacher at heart. His father was Presbyterian minister and he trained at Harvard Theological Seminary. Cornell is currently a professor at a Divinity school. Religion for a better or worse, since the 17th Century has played a big role in the Anglo-American left. If you don’t believe in God, weren’t brought up in a religious family, and if even the loss of faith is a relatively minor matter, Chris Hedges and Cornell West will be difficult to relate to.

    1. Jack

      Actually, as a full blown atheist, I love Hedges. He seems to have a genuine moral core to him that embodies the best of what Christianity ostensibly stands for. And he may still be a believer (I honestly don’t know), but he is consistently opposed to the type of extremist and political religion that is constantly trotted out. I have no doubt that when he talks about spirituality many smug liberals will just tune him out, but they weren’t likely to pay much attention to him to begin with. Most have probably never heard of him anyway. He’s been shoved well to the sidelines, to places like TRNN and RT, where the average MSNBC or Comedy Central viewer will never encounter him.

  19. ??????


  20. Vicente Menard

    The neoliberals who dominate corporate media, they want to financialize, privatize and militarize. Lo and behold, the black prophetic tradition says, No, we re critical of pro-Wall Street policy to generate more capitalist wealth and inequality, when it comes to privatize.

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