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Cornell West and Chris Hedges on the American Condition

Published by marco on

This is a splendid and inspiring 30-minute discussion between Cornell West and Chris Hedges. As the interviewee, West does most of the talking. I’ve included a partial transcript of the points I found particularly insightful below.

America's existential crisis (Interview with Cornell West by RT America/On Contact with Chris Hedges (YouTube)

Here, they discuss the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol:

Chris Hedges: I found so much of the coverage—I don’t know what you thought—where they were demonized as thugs—which is not in any way of course to condone their activity—missing the point. There was complicity within the ruling elite and within the Democratic Party establishment for what’s happened and the core being the rupturing of these social bonds.

Cornell West: I think you’re absolutely right, brother. I think about 17 years ago, when I published Democracy Matters and I talked about how there’s hardly a democracy left because of nihilism. The very forms of nihilism, the notion not just of might-makes-right and greed-is-good, but the massive shattering of families, communities, bonds, networks, so you end up with not just isolated, narcissistic persons, but you also end up with persons unable to provide, unable to generate any kind of story to live by, unable to situate themselves in a national narrative that has any connection with reality.

“I think it is a profoundly nihilistic moment—and nihilism is a lived experience of tremendous wound and hurt.

“When I was there in Charlottesville, when I looked in the eyes of the Neo-nazis, I saw deep wounds and hurts and joylessness and lovelessness and a search for meaning. They just hated me, they wanted to kill me, but I could still understand the ways in which they were very much a product of a predatory capitalist culture, that is just ‘money, money, money’ and they actually were being subjugated in their own distinctive ways. They just happened to be vicious, white-supremacists as well.

“And I think that’s in part what we’re dealing with. Yes, Trump, certainly, is a symbol and a sign and a symptom, but neoliberal rule has helped create the condition for the kind of neofascist, authoritarian, populist—whatever language you want to use—and the ways in which the unbelievable contempt that people have across the board for neoliberal elites, for the professional classes, for the chattering classes, for the educated classes, for the Tyranny of Merit that Michael Sandel talks about in his book, for the Cult of Smart that brother Frederick DeBoer talks about in his book.

“All of those have to do with the arrogance, the self-righteousness, the self-indulgence, sense of entitlement, that is so indifferent to the plight and predicament of poor and working-class people. But it’s always tied on the right wing with the white-supremacist public base. There’s no doubt about that. And it is white-supremacist, but it’s not just that.

“And what you usually have, of course, in corporate media, is the recycling of a certain neoliberal identity that is Manichean—we’re on the good side; they’re on the bad side—yes, they are on the immoral side, it’s deep, but it’s so much deeper than that.”

West also talks about how the repellent hypocrisy of the both the Republican and Democratic Parties leads directly to this sense of hopelessness. Even if you weren’t already a racist, you’re faced with a choice between a party that pretends to adore you and blames your shortcomings on non-whites ® and a party that has only contempt for your stupidity and poverty (D). They form the classic rock and a hard place: loathe yourself for capitulating to racism or loathe yourself for being a failure.

Cornell West: Biden gets up and talks about a narrative that was true for the 1950s: ‘we are the city on the hill’. Oh, yes, uhhuh, you just supported a military coup in Honduras and you think the Honduran people are just going to view you as some kind of democratic example? We know the history of Iran, we know Guatemala, Brazil, Dominican Republic, we can go on and on and on, … what? 267 interventions in 67 cities since 1945? That’s American foreign policy.

“Then, on the other hand, you get your Mitch McConnell: ‘you can’t have self-government without a commitment to truth. Politics can’t just be a commitment to power.‘ He’s an example of the most raw commitment to power that we have.

“Here comes Schumer: ‘the most important thing is democracy.’ Since when has the corporate wing of the Democratic Party with neoliberal policies not been tied to big money, and Wall Street, and Pentagon militarism?

“The nihilism is overwhelming because people are saying: my God, this hypocrisy is out of control, this greed is out of control, what are the countervailing forces that allow us to fight against it? Fewer and fewer. And that’s part of our challenge. Fewer and fewer.

“How do you hold onto the honesty, the decency, kindness, commitments to justice, and being unflinchingly candid about the grimness, and yet still being willing to muster the courage to hold onto a love of truth, and goodness, and beauty […]?”

After talking about Biden being a creature of the past, then discussing Biden’s cabinet, with Janet Yellen, who West kind-of likes, but she’s problematic because of $7M of speaking fees to Wall Street over the last 3½ years.

Cornell West: Is she going to be fair to poor and working people? I wanna give her a chance, but I’m not holding my breath.

“So, we wonder whether the American democratic experiment is just running out of gas. It’s headed toward a self-destruction because its willful blindness by greed and its willful ignorance by contempt for poor and working people thinks it can somehow muddle through. No. These chickens have come home to roost in a very powerful way. In an ugly way.”