Cornel West is one of America’s most provocative intellectuals. He has taught at some of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, where he’s focused mainly on issues of race, gender and class. He also frequently appears as a commentator on social and political matters. Initially a strong supporter of President Barack Obama, he’s now one of his toughest critics.
David Shuster: You are a world-renowned academic, theologian, activist. If there's one thing that you want people to take away from your lectures, your appearances, what would it be?
Cornel West: It would be that it's always worthwhile to engage in the quest for truth, understanding, that the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, that a baby in every corner of the globe — be it in Tel Aviv or be it on the West Bank, a baby in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan or Newtown, Conn., or a baby in South Side Chicago, Koreatown, brown barrio, Indian reservation — they all have the same value. And that's not just empty rhetoric. It means that you're fundamentally committed to the decency and the humanity of each and every person, at least potentially. Each human being has a potential to be decent, has a potential to have integrity, has a potential to be honest. And it means you cut radically against the grain, because we live in an age of monstrous mendacity.
You appreciated the values of Barack Obama back in 2008. Now you're one of the president's toughest critics. You've even referred to him as a war criminal. What happened?
Oh, no, nothing happened at all. The 65 events that I attended — each speech I gave, I said, I want him to win because he's better than the alternative at present, that I would break-dance the afternoon he did win and I would be his major critic the next morning, because I was not supporting him just as candidate. I had a critique of the system as a whole. It was a strategic move. He was the best candidate vis-a-vis the other candidate, but I wanted to be a major critic. Why? Because I had a feeling. And no matter even if he won, he still would need serious pushing.
But it's one thing to be a critic. It's another to call him a war criminal.
No, just telling the truth. I mean, if you've already authorized killings that resulted in 221 innocent children and hundreds of innocent adults, I don't care what color they are. Those are crimes, and they're war crimes because they're done in the name of a war that's undeclared. But I said the same thing about (George W.) Bush. I said the same thing about (Lyndon) Johnson when I was young.
But these were unintentional deaths. I mean, the president has said himself that drones are effective in fighting terrorism. They're only used as a last resort. They have saved lives. What's the alternative?
The alternative is that you first say that you're going to engage in various kinds of strategies and tactics that not just minimize killing of innocent people but you will also tell the truth when you do, because the lies that you tell, the kind of perjury, even, that folk have told in front of Congress, hide and conceal that kind of barbarity.
Has President Obama perjured himself in front of Congress or the American people?
No, he hasn't himself. He's had (John) Brennan (then CIA director nominee), say that no innocent civilian was killed. Lie. Lie. They're running an empire. They're running a killing machine. And when they meet up on Tuesday and make those choices and, over and over again, innocent people and innocent children are killed, that's a pattern of behavior. So they'll never come out and say, "I intend to kill these innocent children." But they’re “collateral damage.” I hate that term, collateral damage.
Back to the use of the phrase "war criminal." Doesn't that diminish the significance of intentional atrocities that are committed during war?
No, I don't think so. I think what it does is diminish his moral authority. But it's not just him personally. This was true for Bush. It would more likely be true for (Hillary) Clinton after.
But the American people have said to the president, "OK, this is a war. We support you." And the president, as commander in chief, has decided this is the most effective, the safest way to try to go after the targets we're trying to go after.
Well, we have to unpack what we mean by "effective," what we mean by "safest." It's like here in New York City, some of us went to jail because of stop-and-frisk because they're talking about it generates high levels of crime without stop-and-frisk. You say, "Well, if you really want to eliminate crime, just create a fascist New York. Streets are clean, no rights, no liberties. Everybody's so afraid that they won't do anything outside of the law, and everybody's safe.” No, there's something called morality. There's something called spirituality. How you relate to one another, how you connect with one another. There's something called democracy that highlights common good and public interest. Those are the things that it seems to me we have to zero in on, and when we do, we cut radically against the grain.
Is there anything positive that you can say about President Obama?
Oh, he's given some wonderful speeches.
He gives some wonderful speeches. Health care we were holding out on, but, my God, you know, it's still the pharmaceutical insurance companies in the driver's seat. He said he was going to fight for the public option. He didn't do it. So, you see, he's given wonderful speeches. Thank God he still, you know, has these magnificent children and his lovely wife in the White House and so forth.
There are some African-American opinion leaders who say that you, Dr. Cornel West, are damaging your own legacy by being so scathing in your criticism of President Obama. What have you gained by this?
I'm not worried about my legacy. These things are transient and contingent. When they talk about legacy, they're talking about what the establishment figures have to say about you. I don't give a damn what they have to say about me. I’m being true to what my mother and father put inside of me. It's a sense of trying to love everybody, and justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private. And that's what I’m committed to.
Would Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) have been surprised that within 50 years, we have an African-American as president of the United States?
No, I think that brother Martin would have tears in his eyes, because he always looked at the least of these. And he would look at the levels of poverty among children of all colors. He'd look at the wages of working people. Black America's so confused that we're so obsessed with being successful in terms of money and not really focusing on being faithful in terms of being decent persons, persons of integrity and quality and magnanimity. Martin Luther King Jr. was a real freedom fighter, as well as a Christian minister. And as a Christian minister, he took the cross seriously. The cross was a symbol of unarmed truth and unconditional love, and a love that always took the form of the struggle for justice. And so, on the one end, he'd look at a black president. He would say, "Oh, symbolically, that's wonderful. Now let me see what the situation is.” I was in Chicago. Let's go back to Chicago. Look at all of the blood flowing. Look at the low-quality education. Look at the massive unemployment. Look at the lack of health care. Look at the dilapidated housing. Let me go to the vanilla suburbs. Look at those mansions. Look at the yachts. “The very thing I was fighting for, poor people's campaign — it's worse off now than it was then. Let me look at U.S. foreign policy … America, when will you wake up and take justice seriously?”
You're in the midst of a war on poverty, going around the nation trying to deal not just with black kids, white kids, urban, rural. What is the solution? What is the message?
Well, I think we live in a society with warped priorities. Brother Tavis Smiley came up with the idea about two years ago to engage in a war on poverty. We've had now three different waves of trying to highlight the plight and predicament of poor people. We began on Indian reservations and with poor whites, poor yellow, poor brown, poor black and so forth. And it's been a beautiful thing, because we've been able to see poor people in action. Their voices at each gathering — we have poor people's organizations, and it's beautiful, because you got poor Muslims, poor Christians, poor Jews coming together because they have a common problem vis-a-vis a common foe in the system. I didn't say enemy, 'cause we're not talking about hatred. We're not talking about revenge, but we're talking about justice, and they have a common foe because there are people constituting impediments and obstacles to how the dignity and decency of poor people is being overlooked. The sad thing is that it's just hard to gain a foothold in the public conversation.
The public conversation in 2016 may or may not include issues of poverty, but it looks like Hillary Clinton may enter the race. Would Hillary Clinton be a good president?
In some ways, I would think about Hillary Clinton as I do Barack Obama. They both are brilliant. They both are charismatic. They both would be head of an empire. They're both involved in war crimes. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s right there with the killer list that's brought every Tuesday to make the choices as secretary of state.
Is Dr. Cornel West calling Hillary Clinton a war criminal?
Oh, absolutely. Oh, indeed. Very much so. How could she not be as secretary of state, the same way Henry Kissinger was? Very much so.
But quite a different secretary of state than Henry Kissinger?
With drones? Well, Kissinger was involved in this "anything that moves and breathes, you want to kill." That's genocidal. Now, Hillary's never said that, but she's making the decisions connected to those drones dropping bombs on hundreds and hundreds of innocent people.
As far as progress, how important would it be for America if we did elect a woman president?
You know, symbolically, it has some weight. I mean, (British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher was a woman. That was a breakthrough against patriarchy. But she turned out to be just as authoritarian and right-wing as any other authoritarian and right-wing Tory. Obama was magnificent — a black president, symbolic, but he turned out to be just as centrist and manipulative and opportunistic as Bill Clinton, who was a poor white brother from Arkansas back in Jim Crow Arkansas. So, Hillary Clinton — she's from outside of Chicago, first woman president, symbolic. I want to fight against patriarchy, just like I want to fight against homophobia and fight against anti-Semitism …
Hillary Clinton — she has fought against anti-Semitism, against homophobia. The Obama administration ended “don't ask, don't tell.” They've dealt with some of these issues, haven't they?
I think within the formal legal arena you're absolutely right, and I am with them. When, for example, they came out for same-sex marriage, I was for that. I think it should have been a federal affair, not just affair of the states. So, for sure, I’m for that, but I’m also talking about connecting struggles against anti-Semitism and struggles against anti-sexism and anti-racism to issues of class, issues of economic injustice and, most importantly, issues of justice outside of the United States.
You're wearing your uniform: black, black tie. Why do you always wear black?
Well, it comes out of the legacy of John Coltrane, comes out of the legacy of black preachers, comes out of the legacy of Martin King, where we put on our cemetery clothes every day. We are coffin-ready because it is our uniform. We put on our armor and say, "Speak the truth, bear witness, get ready to die with the worms."
That's kind of heavy, though, isn't it?
No, it's a lot of fun.
To think about death like that?
Oh, no. Death is a constant companion, just like sadness is, but so is joy, so is fun, so is engagement with the world, you know, absolutely. Anton Chekhov understood it better than most. Tennessee Williams understands it better than most. Those are the great artists of living, artists of life who teach us that death in life makes us even more engaged with life, the short time that we are alive, and try to leave some kind of witness so that people will remember and try to accent the best of what we enacted in the body.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This episode premiered on August 25. Check back here for repeat dates.