Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cornel West's Note to Obama: "How Deep Is Your Love For Poor And Working People?"

Just a couple of days ago, BBC News posted a video message from Princeton Professor Cornel West to President Barack Obama, on the occasion of Obama's first anniversary in office. Unfortunately, the video itself cannot be embedded here, but if you click on West's picture to the left, it will take you to the BBC site where you can watch the video in its entirety. I've taken the liberty of providing a transcript of West's note to Obama below (and adding links where I thought they might be helpful).

"My Dear Brother President Barack Obama,

I salute your unprecedented, historic victory. Just a year ago, we were there celebrating on the Mall. And here we are 12 months later, and I must say that, despite your brilliance, despite your charisma, I'm disappointed when it comes to the fundamental question, which is a question of priorities, a question of urgency: How deep is your love for poor and working people?

We need democratic policies, not technocratic policies. Your
economic team has little or no concern about poor and working people. Job creation is an afterthought. You say the recession is over, but 10.2% of our precious citizens are still unemployed, and many of those have given up working. How deep is your love for poor and working people? Don't be seduced by the elite.

I applaud your brilliance; I applaud your charisma. You changed the image of America. But don't simply be the friendly face of the American Empire. Many lives hang on your courage, and you cannot do it alone. Like
Abraham Lincoln who needed the Abolitionist movement, like F.D.R. who needed the Labor movement, you need a Progressive movement to push you. That's what we, I, plan to do. But you have to be receptive.

You are in a tough situation. I understand that. But as you recall from a discussion that we had two years ago, if you cannot keep alive the legacy of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Myles Horton and Dorothy Day and César Chávez, in the States, and connected to the empowerment of those Frantz Fanon called "the wretched of the earth," you will end up just another colorful caretaker of an Empire in decline and a culture in decay. I believe like Martin King that democracy can be reinvigorated, can be revitalized. But it takes courage. You can't just cut deals. You have to take a stand. You have to have backbone.

So I wish you well. Continue. I will continue to put pressure on you, loving pressure, because in the end it's not about you, it's not about me, it's not about any isolated set of individuals. It's about forces that will ensure that poor and working people live lives of decency and dignity. Bless you, my brother, and stay strong."

I doubt there are many people who could effectively execute this manner of "loving pressure" on the Leader of the Free World, and I am glad to see West do it. Sometimes speaking truth to power means speaking truth to one's friends-- a delicate, precarious, but obligatory challenge for the politically and critically engaged. The rhetorical force of West's question-- how deep is your love for poor and working people?-- is undeniable. Like West, like many, I too have been disappointed by the failure to accomplish a change I can believe in over the past year. But also like West, and I hope like many, I realize that Obama cannot effect that change alone. He does, in fact, need a Progressive movement to buttress him, to provoke him, and to hold him accountable. And any movement that does not promise itself, without reservation and without exception, to the care of poor and working people, that does not direct its activity at cultivating all of our potential to live lives of decency and dignity, that does not refuse the seduction of the elite, is not progressive.

Be strong, and stay strong, Mr. President.


Vivek Jain said...

Thank you, Professor, for sharing Professor West's message.

Noel Ferguson said...

"you will end up just another colorful caretaker of an Empire in decline and a culture in decay"

Well said sir. Solutions to most problems facing the poor already exist. It is leadership that will unleash the potential of the majority of humanity. To paraphrase Einstein, doing what we have always done - whether we are black white or brindle - and expecting things to improve is Insanity.

Querkling said...

I wonder if anyone will ever entertain the possibility that progressivism is fundamentally unworkable, and as far as any leader who once espoused those ideas are seen to abandon them later, perhaps it is that they have discovered just how unrealistic they are, rather than that they are compromised?

Or perhaps, as representative of all the people, Obama simply said, "What makes poor and working people more important or worthy of love than any of the other people I represent?"

steventhomas said...

I thought West was a bit patronizing, and not as eloquent and beautiful as he so often is. But I appreciate your reading of him as speaking truth to his powerful friend. And I completely agree that the left has not done it's job. Obama was pretty clear in his "yes, we can" slogan that it was a "we" effort, not a "him" effort. The liberals are too afraid of their own shadows to be trusted to get anything done, and the American left seems to prefer to "critique" instead of actually getting anything done.

Beth Mburu-Bowie said...

Although I love Dr. Cornel West,I think I may agree with the comment above.

Great blog by the way!