Dr. Cornel West is the most important standard bearer for the Black prophetic tradition, the most important intellectual and spiritual movement in our history. Rooted in the experience of American racism, capitalist exploitation, and imperialism, this tradition has provided an ongoing critique of our economic, social, and political institutions and beliefs, as well as calling out the country’s spiritual bankruptcy. In this premiere episode of The Chris Hedges Report, Dr. West joins Chris Hedges to discuss the decay of the American empire, the struggle to show international solidarity in the face of escalating militarism, and what it means to examine this historical moment through a moral and spiritual lens.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
Watch The Chris Hedges Report live YouTube premiere on The Real News Network every Friday at 12PM ET.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to The Chris Hedges Report. Dr. Cornel West is the premier standard bearer for the Black prophetic tradition, the most important intellectual and spiritual movement in our history. It has given rise to the prophetic voices of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B Wells, EB Du Bois, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Cone, bell hooks, and others. Rooted in the experience of American racism, capitalist exploitation, and imperialism, this tradition has provided an ongoing critique of our economic, social, and political institutions and beliefs, as well as calling out the country’s spiritual bankruptcy. So Dr. West, I wanted to ask you about America’s soul, but then I wondered, does a country have a soul? So I’ll let you take it from there.
Cornel West: Well, first I want to begin by saluting you, my dear brother. I want the world to know that I believe you are one of the great prophetic and progressive voices of our time, and I stand in deep solidarity with you both as brother, as you know, we spent much time together, going to jails together, taught in jails together, broke bread and talked about Dostoevsky and Flaubert and Sartre and Lukács and DuBois and James Cone. So I just want the world to know I love you though, brother. You and sister Eunice and your family.
But no, I think that when we talk about the soul of a nation, you’re talking about what is dominant soul craft here. And the soul craft is a dominant way of life and mode of being in the world. And the United States has always had a market-driven way of being in the world, that its sense of thinking it could conquer the world without losing the best of what’s in it.
We have a great prophetic tradition in the United States. You talked about the Black side, but we got the white side of Melville. We got the white side of Anne Braden and of Rabbi Heschel, or the [inaudible] of Edward Said and others. But when you look at how commodification, commodification in the form of arms manufacturers, war profiteers, commodification in the form of politicians bought off by big money, legalized bribery, normalized corruption. Commodification in the form of our education so that vocation becomes simply profession. So that callings simply become careers. So that education becomes more a matter of schooling, gaining access to a skill to gain money and live large in some vanilla suburb rather than genuine education, which is critical formation. Learning how to be a human being and a citizen in such a way that you can be a force for good and beauty and justice.
We are in a profound moment of spiritual decadence in the United States. Militarism abroad, grotesque wealth inequality at home, white supremacy, the face of the escalating neofascist movement of Trump and others. Ecological catastrophe looming, possible nuclear catastrophe with a gangster in Russia able to push the button at any time, and our own gangster in the White House who could push the button at any time, you see. Neoliberal gangsters are not identical with neofascist gangsters. Yes, there are differences. But a gangster is someone who was cold, callous, and indifferent to the vulnerable. And we can make arguments, invasions and occupations of Iraq, mass incarceration regime siding with Wall Street and crushing the lives of poor and working people in the case of Biden. And with Putin, of course, you just have a matter of massive domination, subjugation, regimentation, and repression within his own Russian context. It’s just a matter of telling the truth, and that’s what you’ve always tried to do, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. Neither one of us have a monopoly on truth, but we try to speak the truth because we are in deep solidarity with those friends Fanon called the wretched of the earth.
Chris Hedges: Is there a period in American history that you think is analogous to where we are now?
Cornel West: Well, in some ways, it’s like the 1890s in which you actually have reactionary, xenophobic, market-driven forces in the driver’s seat. What Lenin called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Workers had no right to organize, Black people were re-subjugated in a vicious way with the neo-slavery after 244 years of slavery. Indigenous peoples of Wounded Knee more and more attacked, the genocidal effects becoming even more and more apparent. The railroad road strike of 1877, the crushing of the working classes in the name of the bosses. The marginalizing, even more intensely, of women, who are always marginalized. There are some analogies. The difference is that America was a transcontinental empire at that time and was beginning to reach out and would bring in 8 million people of color and Guam and Philippines and Hawaii and Puerto Rico and other places. Whereas now, America, as the largest, the mightiest, the most powerful empire in the history of the world, is in deep internal decay and more and more experiencing the constraints and limitations of its power abroad.
Chris Hedges: I want to go back to that period of the 1890s, because it was on the cusp of, as you mentioned, the expansion of America into a more traditional world empire. But there was tremendous opposition to that expansion led by figures like Mark Twain and others who I think quite presciently understood what it would do. I think they used the word soul. What it would do to the soul of the country. And I think they’ve been proven right. Perhaps you can comment on that.
Cornel West: Oh, you’re absolutely right. I mean, Mark Twain is our greatest comic writer, and he stands with Tony Morrison and Herman Melville and William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon and a few others at the highest level of artistic literary achievement in the history of the American empire. He, like William James, was deeply anti-imperialist. Cutting against the grain. You’re absolutely right in that regard. But he coined The Gilded Age. And by Gilded, what he meant was the glitz, the blitz, the obsession with spectacle, the obsession with image, the obsession with celebrity status. He himself a celebrity critical of celebrity. It was like David Bowie’s Fame. David Bowie was famous. He got an indictment of fame with that default that [inaudible] impressed George Clinton and Bootsy Collins when that song came out. So it is with Mark Twain. We’re living in the second Gilded age. You’re absolutely right. It’s all about glitz and blitz and spectacle and money and status.
It’s all about brand and not about cause. You and I are fundamentally committed not to any brand, we’re committed to a cause. The cause of poor working people all around the world with deep, deep stress on struggles against white supremacy and male supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, or any ideology that loses sight of the humanity of people. Could be disabled. It could be [inaudible], it could be [inaudible], it could be landless peasants. It could be any human being who is being crushed, given asymmetrical relations of power. That is a great tradition, but it’s a tradition that is such a threat that is usually repressed. You’re undergoing ugly censorship, cancellation, an attempt to wipe out your own programs, to wipe out your precious words and conversation. That’s par for the course in the moment in which war is at the center of the consciousness of a nation. We know truth is always the first casualty in any context of war.
And you begin to find out, of course, what people are really made of. It’s very interesting to see universities that make claims about objectivity in their scholarship, and as soon as the country goes to war they become major, major cheerleaders and bootlickers of the vanguard who are promoting the war. All the resources, all the discourses, all the orientation behind war. We said, well, wait a minute. We’re concerned about truth and goodness and beauty. We want to tell the truth across the board. We keep track of the gangsterism, be it Russians, be it Americans, be it Indians, be it Hungarians, whoever. Across the board. And that’s how you get in trouble, brother. That’s why you are in trouble right now, but you are bouncing back. You are bouncing back strong.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about Max Weber. Weber in Politics as a Vocation talks about eternal vigilance. That the moment you turn your back, whatever advances you may make – And we talked about the 1890s, certainly a low point for the working class, the reign of terror, Jim and Jane Crow in the South following the collapse of Reconstruction. And yet you did see a resurgence which was then crushed by Woodrow Wilson. The Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, which were not used against German spies, but were used against radicals. Joe Hill is hanged. Emma Goldman is deported. There does seem to be this kind of push and pull. And I wondered if you could explain that, because we certainly seem, at this moment, at a low point. We saw the rise of powerful popular movements in the 1960s. The antiwar movement, the women’s movement, the Black Power movement. And now it seems like we’ve just been rolled backwards. Can you talk about that cycle?
Cornel West: Yeah. I think it has something to do with the fact that the most powerful ideology in the modern world, which is nationalism and the allegiance to the nation state, and convincing people and citizens to live and die for the nation state. That has sat at the center of so much of how we understand the world. And therefore, those of us who are internationalists, those of us who believe that human beings in Ethiopia and Guatemala and Brazil and Bangladesh and India and Japan and Iran and Turkey are human beings, all having the same value, significance, and status. It means we cut radically against the grain. See, when you think of class, most workers would die for the flag in the nation state before they die for an international workers’ movement.
Most Black people, no matter all the talk about race and Blackness, beautiful thing, that’s fine. But most Black people, where they live, would fight for the flag and the nation state before they would fight for Blackness. Most women – Talk about gender all you want, critiques of patriarchy are very important – They get behind the nation state. And so it’s very difficult to be consistent in your intellectual and your moral and your political practice to create international solidarity in a context in which nationalism is so intense and so powerful. Blinding. That generates a whole host of exclusions and repressions and censorships and so forth. And it is what it is. We have to confront the power of that nationalism, but we have to bear witness to an international solidarity. The names that you mentioned, Du Bois. We can go on and on with the Martin Luther King Jr.’s critique of the Vietnam War as an internationalism. Ella Baker. That’s what is needed now more than ever, and yet it seems to be so weak and so feeble.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk a little bit about the kind of war fever that’s gripped the country around Ukraine. I was, as you know, in Eastern Europe in 1989 as a reporter covering the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the Soviet Union. We talked about the peace dividend. We thought, very naively, that NATO was obsolete. In fact, NATO has become a very aggressive force, ask anyone in the Middle East. It has expanded now throughout Eastern and Central Europe. And what has that kind of war fever done? And juxtapose that with the 20 years of war crimes that we have committed in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and everywhere else.
Cornel West: I mean, I just wish that the mainstream press had spent as much time keeping track of the vicious atrocities visited upon Iraqis, those in Yemen right now, or some of the invasion and occupation in Latin America by US forces as they’ve done with our precious brothers and sisters in Ukraine. I think we all recognize war crimes are committed by nation states and empires across the board. And our attempt to be consistent and say, wait a minute, now. We are in profound solidarity with our precious Ukrainian brothers and sisters. We’re in solidarity with our Russian brothers and sisters who have the courage to protest and maybe go to jail for 15 years. Because we look at the world through a moral and spiritual lens from the vantage point of the least of these, echoes of the 25th chapter of Matthew, of poor people and working people.
But we also recognize the American empire has no moral authority whatsoever when it comes to the violation of international law, the undercutting of national sovereignties of other countries. Over and over again, we’ve seen this. And so if, for example, years ago, Gorbachev was promised that there would not be one inch added to the NATO countries, and now 14 are added. If in fact there’s missiles in Poland and Romania, and no missiles in Canada and Mexico, then we have to be very honest in terms of not in any way justifying, excusing the barbaric criminal activities of Putin and the Russian army, but recognizing that the United States has no moral status given its history, given its record of doing similar things. And not a mumbling word of the mainstream press, not a mumbling word of one congressman or woman when you look at the situation of our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank. How many was it in 50 days? Over 2000 Palestinians killed. 550 babies. That’s more in number than Ukraine. A Palestinian baby has exactly the same moral status as a Ukrainian baby or any other baby. Jewish baby. Precious Palestinian baby. Precious. Sounds so simple, but we get in trouble by trying to be consistent, my brother.
Chris Hedges: Well, you’re no longer at Harvard because you have moral consistency.
Cornel West: Well, I can tell you one thing, that if you are in profound solidarity with Palestinians struggling for decency and dignity and are explicit about it, then you are going to have to pay a cost. There’s no doubt about that. That’s true at Harvard, it’s true at Yale, it’s true at Chicago, and it’s true across the board. It’s just the way things are configured these days, that there’s certain issues that you can’t really tell the full truth about yet. Believe me, in the years to come and the decades to come, people are going to wonder, how could it be that the United States can get so fired up about one section of the world? 100,000 precious Ukrainians admitted to the United States. I give them a standing ovation. Please come, please come. But what about our Haitians? What about those from other parts of the world, especially those who are of color? The level of hypocrisy of the neoliberal elites that you’ve talked about, that brother Glenn talks about, and others, has to be pointed out. Has to be pointed out, and is juxtaposed to the barbaric treatment of the Ukrainians by the Russians. But the neoliberal elites have their own kind of vicious, barbaric treatment of those outside of the US border, and mass incarceration machines for those inside the US borders.
Chris Hedges: Isn’t it just a confirmation of the underlying racism that Ukrainians are somehow worthy victims and Palestinians or Yemenis are not?
Cornel West: It’s both racism, but it’s also religion, because you remember in the Bosnian situation you had Muslims. You had a lot of Muslims who looked like white folk, and they were still not treated in the way that they are given their human dignity and many of us were, as you know, fighting that and bringing power and pressure to bear. But you’re right. Deep, deep racism on the one hand, and then the anti-Muslim perceptions and practices on the other have to be pointed out. Very much so.
Chris Hedges: You’ve spent your life in the academy. What’d you finish Harvard in, three years? I don’t know how anyone does that. And then what, you lead the Thomas Pynchon book club when in your spare time? Really? It’s all frightening to the rest of us. I want to talk about the academy. You, of course, went to Princeton. I also want to talk about philosophy, because you’re trained as a philosopher. This is mentioned, you mentioned this in the New Yorker interview, but you’ve never taught philosophy. I think that’s kind of fascinating on purpose. That was your decision. But let’s talk about what’s happened in the academy.
Cornel West: I mean, academy itself has been so commodified, so bureaucratized, highly specialized, so it’s hard to get a sense of the whole. If you look at the political economy of so many elite universities, you’ll see who the donors are, you’ll see who the benefactors are, and you’ll see who provides the money. And it’s very difficult when you’re tied to corporate elites. It’s very difficult when you’re tied to government contracts to tell the truth about corporate elites, to tell the truth about the government. That’s just a fact. It’s like in the old days when you had the Catholic universities tied to the Pope, then it’s going to be difficult to have a serious critique of the Pope the way Martin Luther would, for example, or Calvin or Sweetly. Erasmus, of course, a complicated figure. I love Erasmus. He was very critical, but he held on, he stayed within, but he stayed away from the university. The scholasticism University of Paris. No, no. This is In Praise of Folly. Complaint of Peace. Handbook of the Militant Christian. That’s the Erasmus that I love.
And why is Erasmus important? Because he was someone who, whatever institutional affiliation he had, he was still willing to think for himself. He would stand up and say Saint Socrates, pray for us. He’s talking about a pagan. He said, so what? Socrates is my spiritual comrade as a self-styled Christian. And I think we’d say the same thing about bell hooks. Buddhist. Oh, I can’t hardly conceive of my work without her. Malcolm X. Prophetic Islamic brother. Prophetic Muslim. I can’t conceive of myself without Malcolm X. James Baldwin, agnostic to the core with a deep spirituality. I can’t conceive myself as a Christian without James Baldwin. Ambedkar, one of the great public intellectuals of the 20th century. Dalit. Converted from Hinduism to Buddhism. I can’t conceive of myself.
I’m still influenced by Gandhi, even though Gandhi of course falls so short in terms of dismantling caste. He has a spirituality that still touches me. That a Howard Thurman, and a William Stewart Nelson, and a Benjamin Mays, and a Mordecai Johnson, and a Martin Luther King Jr. would build on as strategy, tactic, and as a way of life for hated people and for Black folk. And I’m thinking of James M Lawson Jr. who, 93 years old, still going strong. New book, Revolutionary Nonviolence. The forward in that is by Angela Davis. Isn’t that interesting? Sister Angela, writing for James Lawson, the great freedom fighter after Martin. What he calls critical plantation capitalism is what he talks about. Always critical of militarism. Methodist preacher, pastor, loving the people all the way down. Love that about the brother.
Chris Hedges: So you finish at Princeton, you study with the great Sheldon Wolin, and I think he was on your doctoral committee, but you –
Cornel West: He was my main advisor. Main advisor.
Chris Hedges: You go to Union, you go to a seminary, and I want you to talk about that. You’re trained as a philosopher. I think of you as probably our preeminent moral philosopher, but you don’t teach philosophy. So what’s up with that?
Cornel West: Again, the academic department’s so narrow, so we should never confuse and conflate a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, with a professor of philosophy. A professor of philosophy usually is one who engages in an analysis of the professional literature of the guild. And you can learn much from them as well, but they tend not to have a sense of the whole. They haven’t read enough Cicero and Quintilian and Vico, where you have to separate the forest from the shining of the nuts and the polishing of the bottom of the trees. You got to get a sense of the whole. You need a synoptic vision and a synecdochic imagination, and a synthetic analysis. You can see the relation of parts and parts. So it’s almost impossible to do that in most philosophy departments, and I refuse to do it, because I knew I had a calling. I’m from Glen Elder. Chocolate side of Sacramento.
I’m from Shiloh Baptist Church. We have a sense of the whole, we have a calling. We have a sense of our vocation and mission and purpose. And what is that? To be blues men and women in the life of the mind. We want to be intellectuals the way that musicians are, because the musicians are an extension of the community. They have the same spiritual and cultural properties as the very people that you are connected with organically. So when they look at a brother West or they look at a brother Hedges, they say, hmm, just like Coltrane. Just like Frank Sinatra. He touches our souls. He empowers us. There’s a use and a function in the gifts that he gives that allows us to be more fortified in our living. Rather than when they see a professor of philosophy’s oh, he’s very smart. Very smart indeed. Can’t follow much of what he does, but I know he’s very smart. Very smart. Eh, I don’t want to just be viewed in that way. No, no, no, no. I want whatever wisdom I have, whatever sense of joy, quest for truth and beauty I have to be filtered directly into the empowerment of people so they can see more clearly, feel more deeply, and act more courageously before the worms get their bodies. [crosstalk].
Chris Hedges: I sat in on a lecture you gave at Harvard on Kierkegaard, and I already hold you in extremely high esteem. But in that lecture hall, I watched you do what pedants cannot do, is you took Kierkegaard, and you first of all brought Kierkegaard to life. But second of all, you were able to synthesize it in such a way that it immediately became relevant to every single student sitting in that lecture hall. And that I think that really is the definition of a great intellectual. I wonder if Kierkegaard has a lot to say to us at this particular moment with American malaise?
Cornel West: Oh, no doubt about it. I mean, he was dealing with the sense of the absurd. He was dealing with the sense of self-gratification and self-indulgent among the bourgeoisie, and we see that in the states among the Black bourgeoisie, the white bourgeoisie, the Brown bourgeoisie, the obsession with making it as opposed to keeping the faith, being connected with the best of the past in order for the future to be very different. Kierkegaard had a sense, something that’s very rare for most academicians, of the catastrophic, not just the problematic. He wasn’t about just solving problems in a managerial way. No, no, no. Catastrophe, hounds of Hell, organized hatred, institutionalized greed, fear, hypocrisy, resentment, envy. That’s what Kierkegaard. Marx is the same way. The catastrophe of a capitalist project’s out of control greed, profit maximization at any cost, leading toward the undercutting of the very condition for the possibility of a healthy planet, let alone the asymmetric relations of power at the workplace where workers are crushed.
So it is with Mary Shelley, the catastrophe of male supremacy. Du Bois, the catastrophe of white supremacy. You see, thinkers like Kierkegaard are concerned with a sense of the whole and how we, existentially, as concrete human beings in space and time can mobilize spiritual, moral, political resources in order to be forces for good and [inaudible] Coltrane. And that’s not an academic project.
And given the disciplinary division of knowledge in the professional managerial elite formative sites like universities, it’s hard to get a larger sense of the whole. Everybody majors in one thing, you get in one discipline, you don’t see the connection of one and the other. And when it comes to acting, no, it’s just getting a job. You’re just fitting into some hierarchy. In the end the name is what? To make the hierarchy more diverse, to make the hierarchy more inclusive. So you get Black folk at the top, Black presidents and congressmen and women who run the empire, who accommodate themselves to Wall Street, accommodate themselves to a national security state, accommodate themselves to massive surveillance. Thank God for brother Julian Assange disclosing US war crimes. Thank God for brother Ed Snowden. We can go right down the lines. You and I were at the court case, who –
Chris Hedges: Chelsea Manning. Chelsea Manning. We used to drive down at 3:00 in the morning. With you driving.
Cornel West: [crosstalk] I picked you up. We’d have a good time with you sitting right there behind [inaudible].
Chris Hedges: That’s right.
Cornel West: [inaudible] Keep track of what? How is the US government, how is, in that case the Obama administration, going to hide and conceal these vicious war crimes? Isn’t it interesting to hear all these voices about war crimes now?
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Cornel West: And it’s good. I mean, we ought to talk about Putin and war crimes. But of course the sad thing is, the international court, the only war crime that they’ve ever punished anybody is Africans. Can you imagine that? The major victims, Black people, African people, are the only ones charged?
Chris Hedges: And Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia and Liberia. Yeah. That’s right.
Cornel West: Yeah. Okay. Yugoslavia too, maybe. But I mean, it’s like good God almighty. But we can’t ever though, brother, and this is very important. We should never ever be surprised by evil or paralyzed by despair. We’ve got to keep engaging in our truth telling and our justice seeking, in our joy sharing, and our wounded healing, and in being love warriors and freedom fighters. And those names that you started this show up with? All you got to do is ask some Curtis Mayfield and [crosstalk] And they are setting the highest standards of moral and spiritual excellence, the how you keep keeping on in the midst of overwhelming despair, not allowing despair to have the last word. That’s why you continue to write. I continue to write. That’s why you have your show. That’s why you continue to speak, and I continue to speak. And they’re going to have to crush us below the ground before we stop.
Chris Hedges: That’s right.
Cornel West: We are going to be faithful unto death.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was the great Dr. Cornel West. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.