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From Trump in the U.S. to Bolsonaro in Brazil, ordinary people in large democracies are discontented and shifting right, what can progressives do about it? Cornel West in conversation with Sharmini Peries
SHARMINI PERIES: Cornel West, I thank you so much for joining us today.
CORNEL WEST: Thank you. I salute you and the wonderful work that you do.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you. Now, Cornel, when I look around the world–I’ve recently been to Greece. I’ve been in Latin America with you when President Chavez was here. And the world has changed dramatically in terms of the shift to the right. And we’ve just recently seen, you know, Bolsonaro coming to power in Brazil. We have Trump here. We have Duterte in the Philippines, and the political shift to the right in Europe that’s taking place. All these changes are taking place right before our eyes, dramatically different from the last time you and I met-
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
SHARMINI PERIES: When there was a leftward shift in Latin America. And so I want to ask you … you’re also the author of Hope On a Tightrope, just before President Obama came to office. You’re the man behind Media Matters. You know, you have an understanding of the world like no one else I know. That’s why you’re my most favorite public intellectual of the day. So tell us your thinking of what we are facing as progressives, as revolutionary people.
CORNEL WEST: Well, I think at the present moment we’re seeing the imperial meltdown in the American empire. It takes the form of the relative eclipse of any integrity, honesty, decency, generosity, compassion among the vast majority of those who rule. You always have a prophetic slice of those who rule. And so you have both the wealth inequality on the one hand, you have the denial of the ecological catastrophe coming–or not the denial, the sense that somehow you can continually hold it back and defer. And you–and what we need is a more massive awakening of poor and working people, and people who care. People who are willing to serve something bigger than their own careers, or their own opportunity for their individual project.
We’re losing this sense of we-ness. We’re losing the sense of collective project. And we on the left, we’re so fragmented that we’re unable to come up with a language that is strong enough to create solidarity across the board. But it’s got to be solidarity in the face of empire, which means when you talk about imperial rule, when you talk about foreign policies that are preoccupied with just profit and political manipulation rather than allowing the Indigenous peoples in any parts of the world to live lives in such a way that they can flower and flourish. Which means you have to have serious discussions about the U.S. imperial role in Latin America, the U.S. imperial role in the Middle East, you have to have honest conversations about Israeli occupation of Palestinians. Honesty about the occupation of Kashmir, and Tibet. Critiques of authoritarian rulers in Africa. There has a strong moral consistency tied to political courage to tell the truth in the name of poor and working people who are catching hell. Poor and working people tend to be an afterthought.
There is a growing callousness and indifference of elites vis a vis poor and working people. They feel as if they can get away with anything with impunity, immunity, no accountability. That’s what it means to live in a right-wing moment. And that right-wing moment is taking the form of an authoritarian populism; of a chauvinistic, narrow, nationalistic populism. But it’s headed toward neofascism, and that’s what’s frightening, it seems to me.
Now, we on the left, we’re fighting, but we need much more vision. Fight. Collective action. Solidarity across the board. We’ve got to lead Dalits in India to peasants in Brazil to workers in Jamaica to workers in Nevada, New York. If we don’t have an international connection against the imperial forces that are coming at us, we’re going under.
SHARMINI PERIES: There are small efforts being made. For example, Fernando Haddad from Brazil, who ran against Bolsonaro is here at this Sanders Gathering. We have an opportunity to talk to Ada Colau, who is the mayor of Barcelona. We have some people here from Jeremy Corbyn’s organizing teams, and also people from Momentum. We have an opportunity here to have that dialogue, which is that international solidarity you’re talking about. Which seems for most people abstract.
CORNEL WEST: Yes, that’s true. That’s true.
SHARMINI PERIES: We make–we can make those connections, and we get the opportunities to meet them. But for ordinary people it’s an abstract concept. If you’re a Dalit in India, or if you’re a peasant, or in the PT–sorry, MST movement in Brazil, where you’ve also been, I know. It’s an abstract concept. How do we as agents, media, or even politicians or intellectuals, bring that unity together?
CORNEL WEST: I think, one, we have to try to exemplify it in what we say and do, whatever visibility we have, to put forward an international vision. The analysis of empire, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, white supremacy, male supremacy. But then beyond that I think we have to be parts of groups. We have to be parts of collectivities that are trying to make a difference. Because for example, you know, when we were there in Standing Rock, it wasn’t abstract at all. It was very concrete. It was fleshified in a very potent and poignant way. When you’re in the context of a Ferguson and you’re getting support from folks struggling in on the West Bank in Gaza, that’s not abstract at all. That’s very, very real.
It’s just a matter of people being able to see it more clearly. And also feel it. You got to feel it. You got to feel that love, support, affirmation, solidarity. But it’s grounded on something more than spiritual, because they care. Because we care. It’s not just a matter of skin pigmentation. Not just a matter of gender. Not just a matter of sexual orientation. Because as a human being, you care about this other precious human being who’s catching hell.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Talking about caring. On the border of Mexico and the United States, we have so many people clamoring at our doors, trying to come into our country, looking for heart, for that feeling, with their children. And we are also in 2018, and you were there in 1968, where there was also a caravan for the struggle of African Americans in this country. Make that connection, as a final thing.
CORNEL WEST: Well, one is that we’ve got to raise our voices by means of our witness, and say that these brothers and sisters who are on the way to the border are catching hell in part because of U.S. imperial policies. Honduras, we support the military coup. We could just start there. Massive repression, massive regimentation and domination. But the first thing is, how do you treat them with dignity? We could coordinate it with the Mexican authorities. How do you treat them with dignity? How do you proceed in such a way that they’re already being afraid, they’re already feeling so insecure and full of anxiety; somehow it can be lessened because you are concerned with treating them respect. With a fairness. And anyone in a higher power, a higher level of power, must be accountable.
And that doesn’t mean–that doesn’t generate one policy. There can be a variety of policies that we come up with. But if it’s a policy that is disrespectful, that is thoroughly unfair, and does not understand the context in which they find themselves, then that’s coldhearted and meanspirited. And all coldhearted and meanspirited actions tend to come back at you. Chickens do come home to roost sooner or later. That’s true for empires, and that’s true for corporate elites. That’s true for individuals in our lives, and it’s true for communities.