Cornel West’s U.S. presidential run will center the rights of all people – including Palestinians – Mondoweiss


For most of his professional life, Cornel West has been politically active in diverse ways — from social justice scholar and commentator to challenging the racism of Ivy League institutions. Routinely engaged in grassroots movements, such as for the rights of poor and working people, has has hardly ever been associated with the upper echelons of the American government. 

Until now. 

Last June, West announced that he will be running for president of the United States in 2024, as a candidate for the country’s People’s Party. I spoke with him about the moral, political, and spiritual values underlying not only the recent decision but how they, more broadly, inform his democratic outlook — arguably a model for any who seek to rid the world of oppression, along with the unnecessary suffering that accompanies it, and build genuine community. 

The following excerpt of our conversation covers American militarism, the rights of Palestinians, the importance of care, and the importance of upholding the dignity of all people — within the U.S. empire and outside it.

His presidential run will undoubtedly prove interesting to follow.

Paul Salvatori: Do you see care as being compatible with getting angry, sometimes — but, as Aristotle said, for the right reasons such as moral injustice? Some might argue that caring too much means being too nice and if you’re too nice, you cease to be critical.

Cornel West: I think brother Edward Said is instructive here. Not just a formidable Palestinian-American scholar — he was also somebody willing, on a more spiritual level and one involving courage at that, to tell the truth about Palestinian humanity, Palestinian suffering, while being critical of any anti-Jewish hatred. None of this prevented him from denouncing the vicious Israeli occupation of Palestine in a measured and honest way. It speaks directly to the deep care he had for humanity. Likewise, he understood the occupation as a catastrophe – a human thing overshadowed by the politics of ethnicity. The world knows that were there a Palestinian occupation of precious Jewish brothers and sisters, there would be a qualitatively different reaction. There would be boycotts, divestment, sanction movements across America and the world. And they would be given moral prizes. Rightly so, because there would be massive mistreatment and massive massacres of Jewish brothers and sisters by Palestinians. Now, when you flip it over, recognize what’s actually happening in reality — Palestinians being brutally oppressed under the Israeli occupation — and then join the global movement to resist it you can get called “antisemitic.” Said was not deterred. He knew this was a lie. He continued to care about both Palestinians and Jews alike.

How is it that Israel seems historically to have had serious difficulty doing the same?

Part of the challenge in the Israeli-Palestinian situation is that you have 2000 years of vicious hatred of Jewish brothers and sisters. And so they understandably have had an underdog mentality underlied by specific memories around anti-semitic pogroms in Europe, vicious attacks against them, and so forth. They are, hence, emboldened to build and maintain what they believe to be Jewish security. I believe Jewish security, like Palestinian dignity, is non-negotiable. There can never again be another Holocaust. Never ever. At the same time, you can’t have Jewish security with the Israeli state that’s on the neck and the backs of Palestinians.

Whether in Israel or in the United States, militarism seems to be front and center of governmental decisions. The two countries seem obsessed with “fighting terror,” defending themselves from “external threats,” and invading territories — against international law — they deem as such. Do you think this somehow affects the sorts of values that, generally speaking, shape or define a society?

That’s where militarism has the potential to become a way of life. It might have its source in government but eventually spills over into public attitudes, aggression becomes normalized. The poor, on the other hand, are ignored. In the United States — the richest nation in the history of the world — 27 percent of children are living in poverty. And for black children in America, it’s 39 percent living in poverty. It’s disgusting. 

America also doesn’t need to spend $1.5 trillion on defense every year when it’s severely clawing back on healthcare, jobs with a living wage, decent housing, education. This is a spillover of the tradition of austerity that’s launched me into presidential politics. And American people, you know, we’re going to push it till the end. We’ve got to raise our voices. This is not about any single individual. This is ultimately not about my presidential campaign. It’s about the moment we’re in and a democratic movement that is spreading globally. It’s being manifested where people are connecting with all others of goodwill, wherever they are, who take seriously the quest for truth. The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, an unremitting concern for universal justice. And as I’ve said, justice is what love looks like in public. Deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice, what love feels like in private. Co-mingled with love, justice involves tenderness — embraces, and doesn’t run from the suffering of the other. That’s love supreme.

What do you view as the main barrier to moving closer to that end?

Cornel West (Image: Carlos Latuf)f

We are a very wretched species. The history of the species is the history of hatred and greed, fear and domination, subjugation, envy, resentment. But part of the history of the species is also the history of being able to change, be transformed, to make moral and spiritual breakthroughs like generating social movements against injustice. Unfortunately, our darker impulses are actually more predominant. That’s just who we are as a species. That’s why the possibility of self-destruction looms so large, because we’ve been so destructive for so long. The issue of nuclear and ecological catastrophe is very real. But we don’t give up on the capacity to change. And that’s true for all of us, no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation, or national identity. As long as that remains something we focus on, then we can interrupt the possibility of those impulses taking form. Societies are at their best in allowing more and more working people, usually crushed by the powers that be, to have their voices heard and be free to shape their destiny. That’s what sits at the very center of my campaign.

If that campaign is successful and you do become the next American president, what’s the first order of business for you in the White House?

I don’t plan to go into the White House until everyone has a house. The priority must remain the plight of those most in need — who Jesus Christ calls “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” See, that’s the most important thing in terms of the witness that one tries to bear. That cuts against the grain of just making it as president, as opposed to keeping the faith of the people who put you there. And even if it’s not as strong as one hopes, one wants folk to know that they’re putting people’s holy and sacred needs at the center of one’s political vision — more than anything else. That’s not just the poor in the U.S. Empire. That’s what Franz Fanon called the “wretched of the earth” all across the globe. How do we put their social needs at the center of how we shape our world? One where they are honored, in words and action, as full persons?

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