Tavis Smiley Hopes To Recover America’s Greatness

How does America recover its greatness? That's the question being put to a panel of intellectuals in a live television discussion entitled "America's Next Chapter". The panel, which will air on cable channel C-SPAN, is moderated by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley. Host Michel Martin discusses that question with Smiley, along with panelists Cornel West, a Princeton professor and author, and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of nonpartisan civic engagement organization, VotoLatino.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we will hear from two provocative thought leaders who are bringing others like them to tackle a big and powerful idea. They are PBS television and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor and author Cornel West. Their big idea, or rather, big question, how to go about recovering America's greatness?

They're headlining a panel being convened in Washington, D.C. tomorrow evening. It will be aired live on C-SPAN and replayed a number of times on PBS. The scheduling of the event could not come at a more critical time. The nation is still reeling from the shooting rampage in Arizona that claimed the lives of six people and injured 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

There's the U.S. unemployment rate, which sits at nearly nine and a half percent. And, of course, we are a nation that is still at war.

And yet we are, at a time when political leaders, particularly on the right, are arguing that many on the left are too quick to criticize this country. So, what is America's next chapter?

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Maria Teresa Kumar, the executive director of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that promotes voter education and participation and she's one of the panelists at tomorrow's event. I welcome all of you for coming. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Talk Show Host): Thanks for having us, Michel.

Professor CORNEL WEST (Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University): Thank you for asking me to be here.

Ms. MARIA TERESA KUMAR (Executive Director, Voto Latino): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Tavis, I'm going to start with you and Professor West. And I did want to ask, particularly in light of that awful shooting in Arizona over the weekend. Do you believe, and is the occasion for this panel, the sense that America is in some spiral downward?

Mr. SMILEY: Yes, in short. There's a Rasmussen Report you may have seen that came out a few days ago, Michel, that suggested that almost half of the American people think that our best days as a nation are behind us. I mean, feel that. Almost half of us think our best days are behind us. You consider that on top of that we're at the halfway point of the president's first term, President Obama's first term, a new Republican-controlled Congress, which means, obviously, divided government, just days, weeks away from others declaring that they're running for the White House a year from now.

There's so much going on in this moment. We could not have known, of course, this horrible tragedy would take place just days ago. But the timing does seem to be propitious to talk about how we get back on the right track, whether or not we can move the country forward, and can we do that in any sort of way where civility is the order of the day?

MARTIN: Well, there are - just to that point - and Professor West, I'm going to go to you, and Maria Teresa, I want to hear from you as well on this question. There are those, particularly on the right, who say that this is the problem of the left. That the left is awfully quick to criticize the United States that, really, America is an exceptional country and that the isolated acts of a few individuals are not at all indicative of the overall, you know, strength and beauty of this country and so forth. And what do you say to that?

Mr. SMILEY: Well, the short answer is not either/or, it's both/and. This notion of American exceptionalism is overrated, number one. Number two, the numbers just don't bear that out, politically, economically, socially, culturally. The numbers don't bear out the fact that we're on the right track.

And number three, I think, finally, you and I were talking before we came on the air, you're the mother of a couple of kids, a set of twins, and most parents and certainly grandparents these days, do not feel that their kids, that their grandkids are going to do better than they have done. I mean the Pew study points out, inside of black America specifically, that is in fact the case. That this generation of kids, unless something drastic happens, will not do as well as their parents have done. How does that make you feel when you're a parent thinking that your kid - kids, aren't going to do as well as you've done. That's cause for angst and hence this conversation tomorrow night.

MARTIN: Professor West, why this conversation? Why now?

Prof. WEST: Oh, we deeply need it. The country's in very deep, deep trouble. We need visionary leadership. We need courageous citizens who are willing to tell the truth and bear witness. Just as you talked about the war, we could talk about the corporate influence in the White House and Congress. We could talk about the influence of big finance, of bankers shaping so much of the framework, not just the policy, but the framework.

Poor people left out, prison industrial complex, new Jim Crow, no serious discussion whatsoever. Where is the focus on the homes, homeowners that are losing their homes, still this very moment, where's the focus on our working people? The attack on the union, especially public sector union scapegoating, becoming more and more like the welfare queens of the 1980s and '90s. We're in very deep, deep trouble.

And with this event in Arizona, which of course, is just - it is unspeakable, I agree with President Obama in that regard, but as you know, the great Marian Wright Edelman points out, and she's one of the great prophetic figures of our day, that eight precious children are murdered every four days. Each innocent life is precious and priceless, be it sister Giffords' life, or be it sister Leticia, or be it Juan in East L.A. You know what I mean?

And so we've got some serious issues and thank god that brother Tavis has had the vision to bring us together to wrestle with this.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, what is your take on this? Do you feel that this country is in a state of decline, and if so, why, or why not?

Ms. KUMAR: I think it's more of a state of flux. I think that we saw this with the first very - first Great Depression and now we're seeing it with the Great Recession. And what I was sharing with Tavis earlier is that when you do look at the - when you do look at the insights, the American Latino community unfortunately is at the bottom of the rung for everything when it comes to education, health care, joblessness, foreclosures.

But despite that, Pew did a study and found that these first generation Latino youth are overwhelmingly optimistic of America's future. And I think what we can take away from that is that they are the ones that see their parents getting up every day, getting beaten up at work every day for being Latino, for being questioned whether they're American enough, and they're saying, well, if my parents are getting up and going to work every day and they keep telling me that El Salvador or Mexico is worse than this, then this must be a pretty good country, right? So they have that optimism. But at the same time, we also see a lot of young people hearing - saying, you know, America is in a decline, and they're saying: This is the only America I know.

I mean I hear the stories of my grandparents and my parents, but this is the America I know and they are incredibly optimistic. I mean we must, we can't forget, they're the ones that helped elect Barack Obama as a collective, regardless of color. And I think that's that optimism that we have to give them opportunity, because yes, they are saddled in debt - incredible debt. They are the boomerang kids where all of a sudden they're knocking on their parent's door saying I've graduated from college, I don't have a job, I'm home. So recognizing their obstacles, but also saying they do believe that America, which is, you know, the epitome of America is from our belly, we do have opportunity, and we do have the opportunity to make us great again.

MARTIN: Tavis, can I ask you a little bit about the sense of why this country is in the state that it's in. There are those from, say, the Tea Party movement who would agree with you that the country is struggling, but they would attribute it to very different causes.

Mr. SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: They would say this country is struggling because it strayed from its core Constitutional values. They would say it's struggling because the government is too big, reaches into too many areas of American life, that our freedoms have eroded, and that is the problem. And is that voice represented in the conversation?

Mr. SMILEY: Absolutely. I'm prepared to have that debate. What we're going to have tomorrow night in this town is something that rarely happens, almost never in this town, as you know, having lived here for years. You never see a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-ideological panel assembled in one place at one time. And you have more than a few hours, literally, to wrestle with these kinds of questions, Democrats and Republicans on the panel. So this panel really is a microcosm of the country. And so often again we get these conversations - you don't see yourself, if you're a person of color, if you're a woman, whoever you might be - you might not see yourself represented in the conversation. So I'm hoping that tomorrow night that this panel we've assembled will, you know, will represent the breadth and depth of the country on both sides of these issues, Michel, that you've just raised.

One thing I want to add just very quickly, though, to what Maria Teresa said earlier, the Hispanic community, the Latino community may be at the bottom, may be at the bottom in some of those areas that you listed, but here's what turns me on about your community - what turns me on is they are engaged, they are involved, and in 2010 no community in this country flexed more than the Hispanic community did.

They weren't successful in the Dream Act. They're going to come back to that. They weren't successful on immigration, but they flexed, they got involved. And so whether you like or loathe the Tea Party, you have to at least celebrate the fact, Michel, that they were angry about something enough to get them involved in the process, and that's what I celebrate about the Hispanic community. There's something to learn from that.

MARTIN: PBS host Tavis Smiley is moderating a conversation on recovering America's greatness. It's called "America's Next Chapter." It's going to be held live tomorrow evening in Washington, D.C. It will air on C-SPAN live. It'll also be replayed later in the week on PBS. Also participating in that conversation, Princeton Professor Cornel West and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino.

And I'd like to ask each of you this, and Tavis, I'll start with you - what do you think is accomplished by a conversation like this? It's the inevitable question. You hosted for many years - for a decade, in fact - a group called the State of...

Mr. SMILEY: The Black Union.

MARTIN: The Black Union, where you brought African-American thought leaders together to talk about issues...

Mr. SMILEY: And out of those conversations came "The Covenant with Black America," came "The Covenant In Action," came "The Accountable Book," all three texts that people have been using to do all kinds of good work across this country. I don't know what will happen out of this. What I do know is that everything starts with a conversation, number one.

And back to the earlier point, I don't want to, you know, filibuster Maria Teresa and Dr. West, but back to my earlier thought, that too often in these conversations we don't see ourselves and our points of view represented, especially in this town.

So if nothing else happens tomorrow, other than the fact that the country gets exposed to ideas that challenge them to re-examine their assumptions, that their inventory of ideas gets expanded about these issues, they look at it through a new prism. If we come to wrestle with these things differently, I'll take that.

MARTIN: Professor West, what do you think is accomplished by a conversation like this?

Prof. WEST: I think that words matter. I think that talking can change people's lives. You know, when Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he's not just talking about versifiers. He's talking about all of us who have the empathy and imagination to speak, try to touch others, influence each other, empower each other in the face of this darkness that we're dealing with. And by darkness what I mean is what? Greed, bigotry, hatred, revenge, resentment. How are we going to deal with those things? Well, we've got to be able to work together, struggle together, talk together, maybe die together.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, what do you think about that? Particularly - I'm asking you from the standpoint of somebody who's an organizer. I mean we're all words people. That's kind of what we do. But you're an organizer. By definition your task is to get people out, to encourage them to vote, to teach them why they need to vote and so forth. And there are many people who would - there are some people who would argue that these kinds of confabs are important, especially if they teach people how to disagree with civility and, you know, present a model for disagreeing, for talking and having people of different backgrounds come together. But at the end of the day some people really say - really what it's about is organizing and organizing and organizing. So what do you think is the benefit of a conversation like this and what do you hope to get out of if or will come from it?

Ms. KUMAR: Right. I think the importance of a conversation like this, and my, you know, my hat's off to Tavis for having the foresight, is that too long as a country we've had certain folks talk to other folks. And this - what you're doing, Tavis, is opening up a space where people of all backgrounds and all ethnicities that represent America fundamentally are coming to a conversation saying we're broke, we need to fix it, and let's come together with common solutions.

And too often - I mean, you turn on, you know, and I'm at fault because I'm part of the punditry, but too often you turn on the television and people are yelling at each other and they're not having a conversation. But if you take the temperature, as I do when I do go door-to-door, I find most people just want to have a conversation, because they don't quite understand why they're being foreclosed on. They don't quite understand why they lost their job. You know, folks that are losing their pension, it's like, you know, I worked - I dedicated my time to this company for 30 years. Why am I losing my pension?

MARTIN: Okay. But just stop right there, Maria Teresa. The answer to that question will vary depending on who you talk to. There are people in this country who have wildly different perspectives on the answer to the why. Some people would say you're being foreclosed on because you made a poor decision. You were in a house you should have never been in. Other people will say it's because the structure, you know, was pushing you in that way and therefore somebody else should be accountable for that. You see my point?

Ms. KUMAR: Right. No, absolutely, Michel. And so what we're having with the conversation tomorrow night is Tavis is actually having the opportunity for folks to speak their grievances, but also say, look, these are the broad problems in our country, and how do we come together as a country? Because too often we are siloed as being black, Latino, white. And he's basically doing, saying these are American issues, and that's what we try to do with Voto Latino. Like Latino issues are not Latino issues. They're American issues just by the flex of the muscle of the amount of people that we have. We have serious problems, but we have to come together as a country to solve them.

MARTIN: And I want to pick up on that, Tavis, if you don't mind, for a minute, because you're so closely identified for years with sort of speaking the word, speaking the truths of and the pains of the African-American community, you know, per se, and with this conversation you really, you know, it is intentionally a multicultural, you know, multipartisan conversation. I wondered, your move in that direction, does that represent, what, an evolution for you, a sense that that's where the conversation is now? I know there are some who are sad that you're not focused so specifically on African-Americans per se. I was just curious what your thoughts are about that.

Mr. SMILEY: Dr. West, my teacher, told me many years ago, it is the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak. If you tell the truth, the suffering of everybody can be heard, number one. Number two, I have always said for years now that when you make black America better, you make all of America better. The Westian twist on my formulation is this: There is something that a blues nation can learn from a blues people - that's Cornel West. What can the blues nation learn from the blues people? I'll let him pick up on that. But there is something that those of us of color can say to the nation about how to navigate these difficult times.

Prof. WEST: Absolutely. And what's distinctive about a blues people is that we don't wait to engage in serious reflection when there's an isolated catastrophe. You begin with the catastrophic. You actually are on intimate terms with the catastrophic. It could be Jim Crow, it could be slavery, it could be unemployment, it could be self-hatred, it could be self disrespect, it could be discrimination, it could be domestic violence, it could be homophobic hatred and so forth. So that those who are concerned about catastrophic circumstances - even when they're hidden and concealed by these deodorized discourses we get among most of our politicians who are much more concerned with superficial rotation of election rather than the deep suffering of fellow citizens and human beings.

MARTIN: Some of the people who will be participating in the conversation along with Professor West and Maria Teresa Kumar are Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post; John S. Chen, chairman of the Committee of 100; Maria Bartiromo, anchor of CNBC's "Closing Bell"; David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, he's the founder of a conservative blog; Dana Milbank for The Washington Post; David Brody, he's the chief political correspondent for what was known as the Christian Broadcasting Network, it's now called CBN.

Is there anybody you wanted to participate who said no?

Mr. SMILEY: No. Not at all. You know, as you know, having - you've moderated these panels with me in the past on C-SPAN, and so you want to keep the number to a number that is manageable. So they are only eight panelists in this conversation, but amongst those eight panelists what you have represented here are Asians, Hispanics, whites, blacks, Republicans, Democrats, all that represented in just eight people.

MARTIN: Why not the Tea Party, though? Why not somebody from the Tea Party, which is, like it or not like it, is - it represents some kind of a grassroots fever, or movement.

Mr. SMILEY: Yeah. I guess I could have gone in that direction and I've certainly had that discussion before on my radio and television show. I have to always remind people that I do radio and TV every single day of the week. And so if you catch me in one snippet of what I do, then you miss the fullness of all that I bring to the table. So that in one particular conversation I can't put everybody on the stage, 'cause can you imagine how many times I've been asked that question on behalf of a million other constituencies about a panel that can only hold eight people? But I can guarantee you, the Tea Party conversation will be discussed, you can believe that.

MARTIN: More to come? Is this - do you envision this as the first of many conversations or as the start of something? How do you see this conversation tomorrow?

Mr. SMILEY: I don't know. I don't know. I've always believed that if you follow the need of your people or the need of the people, there's always something to do. So I just try to follow the need, and we'll see what comes next.

MARTIN: Tavis Smiley is an author, speaker, the host of "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PBS. He's moderating tomorrow's discussion, titled "America's Next Chapter." It will air live on C-SPAN. Also with us, Cornel West. He's an author, cultural critic, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino. That's a nonpartisan group that promotes voter education, registration and participation. They were all kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. SMILEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. KUMAR: Thank you.

Prof. WEST: Thank you so much, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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