Feb 062013
 

President Obama’s recent inauguration has incited the mind of one of philosophy’s recent stars, Cornel West. If listeners remember, PEL covered West in the Philosophy and Race episode. Cornel West has been one of the most outspoken of all political philosophers in the category of race and with prior writings on MLK Jr.s legacy, he didn’t back down when he found out Obama would be sworn in using MLK’s bible. The true question that West raises, which also falls along the lines of PEL’s discussion of the Federalist Papers, is what has changed and where do the people stand in accordance to the president’s image of change?

The issue has long been debated, but West’s recent stance has stirred up debate once again. As West states, “Now, when I got the news that my dear brother Barack Obama, President Obama, was going to put his precious hand on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible, I got upset.  And I got upset because you don’t play with Martin Luther King, Jr. and you don’t play with his people.  And by his people, what I mean is people of good conscience, fundamentally committed to peace, and truth and justice.” This statement not only presents issues of race and politics, but essential questions of ethics and being. What does the image of MLK’s bible symbolize? How have things changed since the civil rights movements of the 60′s? What is a proper interpretation of truth and justice?

West’s display of anger and utter dissatisfaction with the president’s choice to use MLK’s bible reaches far deeper than just symbolic antagonism. The issues that remain prevalent are brought up within this speech: children remaining in poverty, blood still being spilled in the name of race. Obama’s inauguration provokes many more philosophical debates, stemming back to equality and the issues of government brought up in the very origins of the American government. His speech delivers fast jabs at the very heart of the Constitution, the People’s rights and the image of America vs. what lies beyond the superficial realm of political media.Beyond the significance of race politics and political science, the ultimate question of justice reigns supreme.

Rian Mitch

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  7 Responses to “Cornel West on the Hijacking of Political Consciousness”

Comments (7)
  1. There is also a PEL episode on the political philosophy of Cornell West and Dr. King. While I don’t share Dr. West’s righteous indignation or religious fervor, he is spot on with his analysis of why Dr. King’s bible was used as well as the message it covers. I would have also added that Dr. King was quite against the construction of a socialist style welfare state, rather he believed that people needed to be truly empowered on the three main stages of influence, economic, social, and political, before they can ever be brought forward out of social degradation and affect change.

    • Dr. King (like all sane, compassionate people) was very much in favor of a socialist style welfare state, all the way up to providing all citizens a guaranteed middle class income:

      “Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure. First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions. Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline. If periodic reviews disclose that the whole national income has risen, then the guaranteed income would have to be adjusted upward by the same percentage. Without these safeguards a creeping retrogression would occur, nullifying the gains of security and stability.

      This proposal is not a “civil rights” program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate.

      Our nation’s adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly forty years two groups in our society have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest. The wealthy who own securities have always had an assured income; and their polar opposite, the relief client, has been guaranteed an income, however miniscule, through welfare benefits.

      John Kenneth Galbraith has estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which he describes as “not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by ‘experts’ in Vietnam.”

      The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

      The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

  2. Brother Cornell realizes that there is no greater harm to dissent then making dissidence part of the establishment. The use of Brother Martin’s bible takes a most powerful symbol of dissent and puts it at the center of established power. There is a price to pay for this.

    On the other hand, what is the point of perpetual dissent? Surely dissent has goals, and surely the election of our dear black brother Barack Obama means significant progress towards some of those goals? Shouldn’t that be celebrated? Is complete success required before one is allowed to celebrate any success? Isn’t celebration and acknowledgement of success an important part of continued success? I wonder if brother Cornell was as concerned when we made brother Martin’s birthday a national holiday?

    Then there is the whole spectacle of a man with a cushy tenured professorship in an ESTABLISHMENT university posing as a prophet in the wilderness and attacking a man with responsibilities that are turning his hair gray before our eyes.

    Not that I blame or dislike brother Cornell. I really do like the guy and can’t think of another public figure I’d rather have dinner with. I don’t think I could piss that man off if I tried (and for this reason alone I would try). I’d be just another pitiful brother in the Matrix. I just thought of someone I’d rather have dinner with; brother Barack Obama.

  3. I apologize, Joshua, let me qualify my statement further. Dr. King would not have advocated the socialist style welfare state as a means to social change, but rather a way of ensuring that the median of life is maintained.

    “Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure. First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income. To guarantee an income at the floor would simply perpetuate welfare standards and freeze into the society poverty conditions. Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows. Were it permitted to remain static under growth conditions, the recipients would suffer a relative decline”

    The point that is made here is exactly that socialist style welfare states does not help the poor but alternatively we need a dynamic style of welfare, one that does not objectify the recipients because of the social relation of how they receive their proportion of the abundance of society. This is pointed out by the fact that in a socialist style welfare state, the dynamic is based off of the mode of production while what Dr. King espoused was more a dynamic based off of the social relations of people in communities.

    “Our nation’s adjustment to a new mode of thinking will be facilitated if we realize that for nearly forty years two groups in our society have already been enjoying a guaranteed income. Indeed, it is a symptom of our confused social values that these two groups turn out to be the richest and the poorest.”

    Allotting a subsection of society a measure of economic influence without opening the stage for the same subsection of society to obtain social and political influence was definitely antithetical to what Dr. King believed, which is what results from socialist style welfare states.

    “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.”

    This point shows further that leaning away from socialist reform towards a more directly democratic form of the welfare state is the goal. Dr. King believed that only through a mass movement of the people’s will, (hence the reference to democracy) would society be compelled to abolish poverty, not through the forceful redistribution of governments. This would mean that the power to mobilize and abolish poverty lies in the collective actions of people, not rigid control through socialist structures. As such, state welfare systems are used to maintain democracy, freely given to all citizens, regardless of means or need, rather than the way it is implemented in socialist welfare states with capitalist modes of production, which results in an upper class with guaranteed income, charitably giving an underprivileged class, a form of guaranteed income, but barely enough for them to adequately move within the society that they inhabit.

  4. I’m a big fan of West and often agree with him but not on this point. As I heard it, Obama used Lincoln’s bible too. I don’t know what saintly threshold Obama is supposed to cross, according to West, before he’s worthy of touching MLK’s old book but the symbolism seems quite fitting to me. This second term means that the first black President did not fail as President, something the GOP tried very hard to prevent since the first inauguration. It’s sends a very clear message for Obama to take the oath over Lincoln’s bible and MLK’s bible. It draws a line of progress in our history and marks an important milestone in the ongoing national story. I think it’s sweet and right. Sorry, Cornel.

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