The Magazine

The Teach-In Lives!

Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, and the ‘Tree of Corporate Destruction’

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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West hit all the leftwing hot spots: “Prison industrial complex .  .  . unavailable child care​—​still unavailable health care after Obamacare .  .  . military industrial complex .  .  . imperial presence in Afghanistan and Iraq .  .  . levels of greed that even Charles Dickens would have problems with. .  .  . The entertainment complex, who bombard our young people with weapons of mass distraction to keep them titillated and stimulated and infuriated that they are no longer part of or fundamentally focused on the [word indecipherable on my recording] decency, courage, and compassion manifest in the short movement from womb to tomb.”

The program said West’s topic was the “crisis facing youth.” But the speech really consisted of track numbers one through seven on Cornel West’s Greatest Hits (not a real album). There were plenty of racial politics: “In this age of Obama let us be very clear,” West said. “Even as we celebrate his symbolic cosmetic and cathartic victory and presence, we all want to be sure, and we’re going to do all that we can, so he doesn’t become just another black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs!” He implored somebody​—​it wasn’t clear who​—​to “Tell us the truth.” His vision was global in scope: “We learned in Madison, we learned in Indiana, we learned in Ohio, and we learned in northern Africa, Tunisia, and Egypt, just like we learned in the early nineties with Nelson Mandela and others .  .  .” What we learned I can’t say, because at that point West reverted to gibberish. By the time he’d ended by screaming the word “SWINGING!” the house was on its feet. 

According to his website, you can catch Dr. West live at the Texas Tech University auditorium at 7 p.m. on April 15. Don’t wait: Book your tickets today.

Cornel West is a tough act to follow. The schedule called for Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the noted Columbia University economist, to address the teach-in via webcam. Sach’s image was to be projected on the back wall, where the Tree of Corporate Destruction had been. “And now,” said Gustavo Rivera, “live from Boston​—​this is the wonder of technology, ladies and gentlemen​—​live from Boston, we are joined by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.”

Nothing showed up on the wall.

“It’s possible that this is showing up online,” Rivera said.

Still no Sachs.

“Now we know how the folks at Saturday Night Live feel like,” Rivera said.

The audience chuckled nervously.

“Should we move on to our next guest?” Rivera asked his overseers.

Their answer was yes. Rivera introduced Heather McGhee, a young analyst at the leftwing think tank Demos, who delivered the standard progressive critique of American politics: Everything was fabulous in this country until Ronald Reagan’s election, when the rich took over the government and destroyed unions and immiserated the middle class through tax and trade policy. Don’t believe your lying eyes: The last 30 years have been an absolute nightmare. It’s a wonder Americans haven’t turned to cannibalism to survive. The benighted populace, McGhee said, has “scapegoated the poorest among us, blaming immigrants brought here by the exact trade deals being cut in that other room, and now even attacking the last middle class workers standing among us,” i.e., public sector unions.

Then there’s Paul Ryan and his budget, a “desperate Hail Mary” that “doubles down on every single bad economic decision of the past 30 years.” If Ryan had his way, well, that would be “truly the end of America as we know it, the end of the middle class.” The “hysteria over the deficit” has been manufactured “by Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson” and “oil billionaires such as the Koch brothers, among others.” But there’s good news: “We’re going to take our country back.” Before we do that, however, we have to sit through the rest of this teach-in.

As McGhee was speaking it occurred to me that conservatives have the left all wrong when they argue liberals have no solution to the fiscal crisis. Liberals do have a solution​—​it’s just that few of them say it out loud. The liberal solution to American insolvency is to soak the rich. The liberal way to curb inequality, close the deficit, and pay for all those electric cars is to take money from the greedy and give it to the U.S. Treasury. Of course, taxing Sam Walton’s family will only get you so far. To come anywhere near paying for the society Frances Fox Piven, Gustavo Rivera, and Heather McGhee want, you’d have to gouge the middle class once you’d finished off the wealthy, and in the process collapse the economy. But at least the lefties on stage at Judson Memorial Church are honest enough to admit it.

The techies figured out how to project Jeffrey Sachs onto the wall. In the 1990s Sachs was known for administering “shock therapy” to post-Communist regimes willing to listen to him. He urged a rapid transition from public to private ownership in places like Russia and Poland. As the name implied, shock therapy did not come without social, economic, and reputational costs. So Sachs has spent the last decade reinventing himself as a champion of foreign aid, adviser to U.N. secretary generals, critic of American foreign policy, and president of Columbia’s Earth Institute.

“It’s a memorable day,” he said. “It’s the day that the Republican party showed us what they really have in mind.” Professor Sachs has run the numbers on Representative Ryan’s budget. If the Ryan budget became law, Dr. Sachs has concluded, “We would cease to be, to be blunt, a modern country. We would end up with no policies for energy, no policies for infrastructure, no policies for job training, no policies for education, no policies for child care, for early child development, for all the things that make a decent society.”

Sachs’s rant grew in intensity. “There’s nothing bold about this,” he said. “There’s nothing clever about it, there’s nothing thoughtful about it, there’s nothing innovative about it, it’s just one bald assault by the rich on the poor. And that’s the spirit of the times right now.” The audience hung on Sachs’s every word.

He impugned both parties for turning America into a “corporatocracy” where the “corporate sector has taken hold of government.” He seemed physically ill while describing the world’s corporate masters. He sarcastically parroted the corporatocracy’s lies: “We have to sacrifice community development, we have to sacrifice job training, we have to sacrifice education, we have to sacrifice an energy system, we can’t afford new infrastructure. It’s a shocking, shocking abuse of power.”

The crowd was getting really stoked. The temperature in the church kept rising. The students seemed ready to seize some pitchforks, torches, tar, and feathers.

“It’s shocking irresponsibility,” Sachs said. “And the saddest part​—​”

The room vibrated with the echoes of long-ago battle cries: Storm the Bastille! Vive la révolution!

“And the saddest part​—​”

Everyone leaned forward to hear what came next.

“The saddest part of all is that​—​”

The video connection blanked out. Sachs disappeared.

The deflated crowd let out a frustrated moan. The tree of corporate destruction​—​it had struck again! And somewhere up above, the plutocrats who’d built Judson Memorial Church were smiling.

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

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