After radical Princeton professor Cornel West savagely attacked President Obama as a Wall Street mascot and puppet, it would hardly be surprising that PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley would provide him a forum on Wednesday night to repeat his analysis – after all, Smiley and West host a public-radio show together. But it’s still amazing that he doesn’t see his insults as very insulting:
SMILEY: Did he have to be called a Black mascot and a Black puppet? There are those who suggested that you were petty, for a man who talks as much about love as you do, that you were petty for using terminology like "mascot" and "puppet."
WEST: Well, one, I am the kind of Christian, I love mascots. I love puppets, too.
He’s still a human being. He’s still brilliant. He’s still charismatic. He’s got a magnificent wife, he’s got precious children. He’s still a brother in that sense. So when you call somebody a mascot, that is a putdown in terms of the role that they choose to perform. That’s not an attack on his humanity.
West also tried to explain the strange-sounding line about Obama growing up (deficiently) in a white culture:
WEST: Well, you say his formation was culturally White. Yes. There is such a thing as being formed culturally White. Hall and Oates is blacker than Pat Boone. Average White Band is blacker than the Beach Boys. They all White, but one’s more Black than the other. Curtis Mayfield blacker than all of them in terms of style, in terms of form, in terms of soulfulness.
So it’s not a putdown. They’re all human beings. I actually appreciate Pat Boone, but I know he’s not Curtis Mayfield. I know he’s not Hall and Oates. So it’s not a matter of excluding folk from humanity, but we’ve got to tell the truth though, brother, and I’m committed to telling the truth in relation to poor and working people, whether I’m trashed or not.
SMILEY: The second quote I want to get to, "I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free Black men. It’s understandable; as a young brother who grows up in a White context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a White man with black skin. All he has known culturally is White. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. You just spoke on that. Anything you want to add to it?
WEST: There’s a line above it – he is as human and I am, and it can be overcome. We know brother Father Pfleger, our dear brother just got his church back, St. Sabina -
SMILEY: In Chicago.
WEST: – one of the great prophetic churches of our country. He grew up on the vanilla side of town. He had a White formation. But he is fundamentally committed to poor people. Fundamentally committed to working people. John Brown, even a better example on the White side of town, loving Black folk more than many Black folk loved themselves. He died for Black folk.
So by saying "white formation," that’s not a – that’s a description. That’s not a racist characterization, as it were. And let’s be very honest about it – to grow up on the vanilla side of town does mean that you have a certain fear of free Black men. In fact, in his own autobiography he says his grandparents had a fear of Black men.
SMILEY: And his grandmama used the "N" word.
WEST: Used the "N" word. I still love the White grandparents. They loved him, and that’s a beautiful thing. But we have to be honest in terms of historical formation. But you know what? What’s fascinating to me, though, Tavis, and this is where you see the pathology of the pundit class, if people could spend as much energy trashing me and demonizing me as focusing on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, tell the truth about the military industrial complex, half of the federal budget, tell the truth about Wall Street oligarchy and the greed still running amok this very minute tied to the glitz and the gluttony that goes with it.
Tell the truth about the corporate media that is market-driven, that doesn’t want to allow progressive voices to tell the truth about the corporate state and the imperial wars connected between the two. That’s the sad thing.
Smiley began by simply asking for West's take on the controversy swirling him around him. At this point in the interview, he asked West if he would like to denounce The Boston Globe for editorializing against him. (The answer was yes.) Then Smiley wrapped up by asking about the Jews in West's remarks:
SMILEY: The last part I want to get to in the time I have left here, the third part of this article that you’ve been most taken to task for, your quote, "He feels most comfortable," speaking of President Obama, "He feels most comfortable with upper middle class White and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want." There are those who suggested that that comment is borderline, if not anti-Semitic.
WEST: Oh, no, not at all, good God. Given my love for Jewish brothers and sisters, absolutely not. What I’m saying, if you look at his advisers, if you look at his appointees, it’s more National Hockey League than it is National Basketball Association.
SMILEY: Football league. (Laughter)
WEST: Or National Football League, right? Now, if we had a National Football League-like appointee, you had all these brilliant Black brothers and sisters, there’d be a whole different kind of dialogue. It’d almost be a civil strife in the country, you see.
And I say hey, get the most brilliant White brothers you can get. Get some progressive ones. Get the most brilliant Jewish brothers and sisters you can get, but get progressive ones. Get Black brothers and sisters, get progressive ones concerned about the poor, concerned about working people, jobs, jobs with a living wage.
Healthcare available to all. Medicare for all. These are the kinds of issues that need to be talked about. Believe me, we could be living in a moment in which we have the last chance to somehow push back the institutionalized greed that is just completely devouring the democratic possibilities of the country, and that’s the kind of backbone that we need and that’s the kind of backbone I haven’t seen.
If he had backbone for poor and working people the way he had backbone killing Bin Laden, I’d be break-dancing. I’m not. I’m upset.
It's a little amazing that even as West is sitting on taxpayer-funded PBS, he can still wail about how the corporate state isn't allowing any progressive voices to speak in the media. It's a little jarring to go from West's Marxist analysis to the underwriting announcements: "Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it."