Askwith Forum: Cornel West – Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback


(crowd murmuring) (audience applauding) – Welcome everyone to the first
Askwith Forum of the year, we are delighted to have
Harvard Divinity School professor Cornel West with us tonight. Before I introduce Dr. West I
just want to say a few words about the Askwith Forum for
those who are joining us for the first time. The Askwith Forums bring
leaders to campus to share knowledge and engage with our field. These forums help strengthen
the intellectual life of our school through
conversations, debate and the exchange of ideas. They are also a wonderful
way to open the doors to welcome members of the
greater Harvard community and the general public to our campus. Last year nearly 100,000
people joined us on campus and online for 18 Askwith
Forums and debates. Tonight we’re pleased to have a special guest in the audience,
Patricia Askwith Kenner, granddaughter of Herbert Askwith. Herbert Askwith, who graduated
from Harvard College in 1907, was a New York City public
relations consultant, writer and publishing executive. The Askwith Forums were
established in 1998 by his children and grandchildren in his honor. One of the many wonderful
elements of these forums are the opportunities that they provide to bring people together
across life experiences, perspectives, belief
systems, political ideals and to grapple with critical
and challenging questions to begin to untangle the many complexities of the world in which we live. At this particular moment
in our nation’s history, the opportunity to listen,
learn, and struggle seems more important than ever. For this space our community
is deeply grateful. (audience applauding) It is hard to imagine how
to introduce Dr. Cornel West with the reverence and
honor that he deserves, so forgive me, as I will try to be brief. Dr. Cornel West is a
prominent and provocative democratic intellectual
whose ideas both inspire and complicate national
discourse around race, power, politics,
spirituality and humanity. Here at Harvard he holds a
joint appointment as a professor of the practice of public philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School
and the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Over the course of his career
Dr. West has taught at Yale, Harvard, the University
of Paris, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary. He has written 20 books, has edited 13, and has appeared on countless
television and radio shows. In addition to all of
this, Dr. West has made three spoken word albums
including Never Forget, a Journey of Revelations,
in which Dr. West and his collaborators
provide a powerful commentary on the structures and
policies that continue to oppress Americans today. On a personal note, I first
had the honor of listening to Dr. West when I took his
class as a 17-year-old freshman at Harvard College. Since then I have found Dr. West’s words to be a powerful motivator
as well as a critical push to think in more nuanced and complex ways about the world in which we live. His reminder that justice is
what love looks like in public sits in a frame in my
office, reminding me always that the impact of our
actions speak as loudly as the intent of our words. It is truly an honor to
introduce you, Dr. Cornel West. (audience applauding) (Cornel laughing)
(audience applauding) – Thank you so much. Oh what an honor and what
a privilege and blessing to be here at this prestigious
series, this forum. I want to begin by
saluting again the sponsor, this very, very special family. It goes back to Herbert and Margaret, Bertram and Mimi, and then Patti. We want to thank you so very
much for having the vision, for executing that vision, and for facilitating this kind of very Socratic engagement. Because that’s very much
what this forum is all about. Let’s give it up again
for the Askwith family. (audience applauding)
Herbert and Margaret and Bertram, and precious Mimi, and Patti herself, Patti Askwith Kenner. Thank you so very much. Thank you so very much,
Professor Gretchen Brion-Meisels. I’m told your mother is here somewhere. Where is your beloved mother? Stand up, stand up, give it up for the mother, indeed, indeed. (audience applauding) (Cornel laughing) Now I want to begin on a
note of revolutionary piety. By piety I don’t mean
blind obedience to a dogma or uncritical deference to a doctrine. I mean acknowledge dependence, acknowledging those who
have constituted forces for good in our lives as we make our brief moves
from mama’s womb to tomb. And so the captain of the ship, my dear brother Dean James Ryan, where is he where is he, where is he? You sittin’ right next to
the mother, absolutely. Give it up for our new dean, or the new president I should say. (audience applauding) On his way to Charlottesville. My God, thank God, you’ve got some people
prayin’ for you, my brother. (audience laughing) No but I hear so many
wonderful things about you. I was blessed to have a
conversation with you. And after my time there in Charlottesville I want you to know there’s
a lot of good people there, black, white, brown, red, a lot of good women, a lot of good gay brothers
and lesbian sisters and bisexuals and trans there. So we won’t allow some of
our sick white brothers and sisters to somehow define the identity of Charlottesville, even given the vicious
legacy of white supremacy that’s been operating, not just
there but in Cambridge too, in Oakland, and Chicago, and Detroit. But as the new president
of University of Virginia I will be praying for you too. Give it up again for you. (audience applauding)
I’m telling you brother. Absolutely I want to thank Sister
Jodie, where is sister Jodie? There she is, oh indeed. I wanna thank sister Jodie, brother Roger, I know you all are two creative leaders who brought us together to sustain the high quality of this forum. As you can see I am in no rush. (audience laughing) Not at all. No, we’re gonna take our time tonight, we’re gonna have dialogue. I want to be pushed and unsettled, and I’m gonna try to say something that unsettles and un-houses you. Because for me that’s what
paideia, P-A-I-D-E-I-A, that deep education, not cheap schooling is all about, to be unsettled and unnerved and un-housed. I want to begin by acknowledging Israel Scheffler, who was my very dear friend. He was a teacher, he allowed me to give
my first public lecture in 1974 here at the Graduate School of Education. He was a sophisticated
philosopher of science as well as philosopher of education, and he taught wonderful courses on George Herbert Mead and John Dewey and William James, Charles Sanders Peirce. He taught for 60 years at Harvard. He just passed a few years ago. His son Sam graduated together in 1973, and we went to graduate
school together in Princeton. Again a note of subversive piety. It’s another way of
saying that I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me, somebody attended to me and for me that is at the core of paideia, of deep education, the formation of attention, to use the wonderful
language of Simone Weil. How do we engage in attending
to the things that matter? Not image, not spectacle. Not money, position, and title. But courage, compassion,
service to others, willingness to take a risk and doing it in a Socratic spirit. Not self-righteousness but
of self-critical orientation. Now when I say I am who I am
because somebody loved me, I’m talkin’ about the highest honor I have ever received in my life, which has nothin’ to do with Harvard, nothin’ to do with Yale or Princeton or University of Paris
or our best teachers at Union Theological Seminary. But it’s being the second
son of the late Clifton L. West, and the very present Irene B. West. My mother has a school named after her in Sacramento, California where I grew up, called Irene B. West Elementary School. See, so that sense of paideia is something that’s deeply inculcated in my own sense of who I am. But it’s not just formal education. It’s what I call soul-craft, which is the shaping of
the kind of human beings we choose to be, given
the fact we’re all born in circumstances not of our own choosing but can still make choices in such a way that there can be a little
bit more courage and vision, service to the vulnerable in the world when the worm gets our bodies. And I have to acknowledge
Shiloh Baptist Church on the chocolate side of
Sacramento, California. Reverend Willie P Cook, pastor. We had pastors in those days, not CEOs. (audience laughing) We had choirs, we didn’t
have praise teams. We produced the kind of high-quality folk like the professor of practice here, my Professor Debra Jewell-Sherman. You could feel it in her soul: integrity, honesty, decency, generosity smile and style all at the same time. And Deacon Hinton, head
of my deacon board, who cared about young black brothers and had no kids whatsoever. They kept track of us. Love flowing. Sarah Raymond vacation
Bible school teacher who would say, little
Ronnie, that was my name, I didn’t know my real
name till I was seven, that was Cornel. Because the Cornel Ronald
West, I was just little Ronnie until I was seven. Found out I was named after Cornel Wilde, who was actually a
Hungarian Jewish brother who changed his name when he came here and became a, not a great
actor, but a good one. He wasn’t Marlon Brando
but he was Cornel Wilde. That’s why my name has one L and not two like the university. But most importantly,
when she would tell us ooh, if the kingdom of God
is within you then everywhere you go you oughta leave
a little heaven behind. See that’s not just dogma, that’s wisdom for life. What kind of person are you gonna be? What kind of force will
you unleash in the world? What kind of praxis will you enact, such that you can leave the
world just a little better? Maybe inspire a person,
maybe unsettle a soul, maybe get a mind to broaden and shatter parochialism and provincialism as you make your way to the grave. And I say this because
I come from a people, black people in the midst, of the American Empire and the American democratic experiment. We’ve been wrestling with forms of death, the social death of slavery, the civic death of Jim and Jane Crow, the psychic death of being
told you’re less beautiful and less moral and less intelligent, the spiritual death of hating yourself, being taught to hate yourself, and told you have the wrong
hips and lips and noses and skin pigmentation and hair texture. And in the face of that kind of hatred, still taught the world so
much about how to love. From John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, every note shot through with a love ethic. Martin Luther King Jr.’s love witness. There’s never been a character
on the American stage, even given the geniuses, like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, but oh, when it comes to
Lorraine Hansberry’s Mama and her Raisin in the Sun, we’ve never seen a character
overflowing with love, or with Larry Graham of
Sly and the Family Stone we call over-lovin’. Overjoyed to be over-loving. But this love talk is not abstract, it’s a love of truth, veritas. And the condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak. It’s the love of beauty, but there is no beauty without
wrestling with the terror, the way in which the
great Rilke taught us. Love of goodness in the
face of overwhelming evil, institutional, structural
evil, personal evil. So when I was blessed to
stand there in Charlottesville real close to my various
sick white brothers, neo-Nazi brothers, I said I’m not afraid of you, I’d rather be dead than afraid. ‘Cause I come from a people who have known forms of
catastrophe you know not of. And those same people could
looked at catastrophe, catastrophe in the face
as they gangsterize and refuse to gangsterize others. Rather be defeated momentarily
with their integrity than win and be a gangster like those who were gangsterizing us. Oh that was the I that I sent back, to those sick white
brothers when they stood and spit and cussed and tried to demean and devalue. Oh you don’t know who you’re dealing with, the West family. You don’t understand
Shiloh Baptist Church, you don’t understand
who Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were. Do you understand who
Ida B. Wells Barnett was? With a bounty on her head, had to leave because she’s dealing
with American terrorism, the lynching and writes a
classic called The Red Terror with a smile on her face. That’s where I come from. Not because I’m perfect, not because I’m better than anybody else. I choose to be a part of
that kind of tradition. The Isley Brothers call
it a Caravan of Love, and that’s what it is. But in order to be a part of that Caravan, or as Curtis Mayfield said, get ready to get on board. You’re gonna have to have some
deep paideia, deep education. And there’s a connection
between what goes on here at this august institution and what’s been goin’ on in
the tradition that shaped me on the black sides of Sacramento. When I entered here in 1970, I met high-quality teachers like my tutor Robert Nozick, and John Rawls my chairman,
philosophy department, Hilary Putnam and Roger Firth, Burt Dreben and WV Quine. These are not just towering
philosophic figures, they were educators, they were teachers. Now in those days university
hadn’t been so corporatized. It hadn’t been so commodified. It hadn’t been so bureaucrat-ized that it was obsessed, these
days too often with research, not enough teaching
going on, hand to hand. Touch to touch soul to soul. So I’m sitting there with
these philosophic geniuses, Stanley Cavell, for example,
he’s spendin’ two hours with me and I’m telling, Professor Cavell, I know you got something
else to do, don’t you? No, we’re gonna finish this
reading of Nicomachean Ethics. (audience laughing) boy, he’s spending time with
this black black brother from the ghetto of Glen
Elder, Sacramento, California. He loved his students. Took time with his students,
he lingered, he stayed there. So you can imagine years
later four years later, when I returned from
Princeton and he asked me to be a TA in his class, Humanities 5, I said, ooh, this is the
part, what it’s all about. The generations cuttin’ across race, cuttin’ across gender, cuttin’ across class, cuttin’
across regional division. You say, “Well brother West,
what has this got to do “with spiritual blackout?” Oh, we comin’ there. (audience laughing) The Richard Rortys and Sheldon Wolins and Thomas Kuhns and Tim
Scanlons and Thomas Nicholls that I encountered at
Princeton, same kind of care and attention to this cracked vessel
that you’re lookin’ at. And yet in our moment
of spiritual blackout, which is the relative eclipse of integrity, honesty,
decency, and generosity, it is part of the neoliberal soul-craft, the obsession with smartness, the obsession with money and
the obsession with bombs. That’s what we’ve been dealing
with in the last 40 years. Now I swear it’s not just
brother Donald Trump. Now you can’t fetishize that brother. He’s bad enough in the concrete. (audience laughing) It is not his fault. He’s not the cause. He’s the sign and the symptom. Brother Donald Trump is
as American as apple pie. Whole lot of Donald Trumps been in place. He’s not the first such white
brother I have encountered. He just happens to be
in a powerful position. Narcissism. No empathy. Spectacle, no substance. Long history of white male
mediocrity in high places. (exclaiming) Can’t make meritocratic claims
for that brother, oh no. (audience laughing) But he’s tied to neoliberal soul-craft, he’s got to be the smartest in the room, given all the evidence
going the other way. He’s got to be the richest in the room, because the culture more and more is about smartness, and
smartness, smarter, just notice the number of times you
hear people in public use the word obviously. Obviously obviously obviously obviously. It’s not obvious, it’s not self-evident. Where’s your argument? It’s an in-crowd word. Only the smart ones
know that it’s obvious. Oh yes, it is obvious, everybody
else thinks it’s obvious. No. No, a lot of times the obscurity is actually being hidden by the discourse for the obvious. So you conform uncritically. You’re just uncritically. And neoliberal soul-craft means what? Obsession with smartness,
rather than wisdom. Obsession with money
rather than compassion. The obsession with bombs rather than treating other
nations with dignity and respect. That’s what makes us an empire. We’re not just a domestic experiment. We’ve got 4,855 military units around the world. We got 587 and 42 foreign countries got over 150 countries where
we have US special operations. What is that? But it’s not Socratic. And when you talk about
spiritual meltdown, you’re talking about a
particular kind of soul-craft that makes it difficult for persons to engage in high-quality paideia in informal and formal practices: family, synagogue, mosque, church, trade unions, schools, mass media, corporate
media, alternative media. How difficult it is for the tradition that produced me to find any kind of footing. That’s what we experienced
in Charlottesville when we were viciously attacked. And the anarchists and
the communists and others came in to intervene. It was clear there was no context in which there could be
a paideia-like witness, a prophetic witness, that
sense of trying to connect the critical sensibility
with a concern of people who were suffering. That space was completely eclipsed, and that’s what is so sad
about our present moment. It’s not solely the arbitrary
power of Donald Trump. It’s not solely the cold-heartedness
and mean-spiritedness of the Republican Party. But it’s a much larger
civilizational crisis, having to do with an empire in deep spiritual decay and moral decline. And it affects each and every one of us. It’s just when I called Donald Trump on television a gangster, and they said, “Oh brother West, why do
you use that language?” I said, well it’s an objective condition, it’s not a subjective expression. I was a gangsta ‘fore I met Jesus, and now I’m a redeemed sinner
with gangster proclivities. (audience laughing and applauding) So when I call somebody a gangster, I’m talkin’ ’bout myself. Talkin’ ’bout brothers and
sisters I grew up with. I know what a gangster is. If you’re grabbing a woman’s
private parts, that’s gangster. If you’re stealing oil
from another country, that’s gangster. That’s not some kind of subjective
feeling and description. It’s very real. Very real. But he, as I said before, must not become the
object of our fixation. You’re talking about
something that’s at work, the commodification of a whole
culture and ways of life. And the militarization of
whole culture and ways of life, from kindergarten and schools
militarized more and more, police departments militarized, looking as if they’re occupying armies in chocolate hoods. The militarization of our relationships. I come from a people who
taught the world much about tenderness, ’cause justice is what love looks like in public. Tenderness is what love
feels like in private. That’s why Otis Redding said,
“Try a little tenderness.” He didn’t say, “Say my name,
say my name, say my name.” (audience laughing) It’s true. Sweetness. Listen to the voice of a David Ruffin, lead singer of the Temptations. Listen to the Hutchinson
sisters in the Emotions. Listen to Aretha. Listen to Luther van
Dross and Donny Hathaway. You hear a sweetness there,
’cause sweetness is a sharing of a soothing feeling against the backdrop of
catastrophic darkness. And soul-craft must have
tenderness, sweetness, gentleness. That’s the raw stuff of
what it is to be human. So you’re able to straighten your back up. Now we had a brother in my
church every fifth Sunday who played the organ. His name was Sylvester. But he’s known to the world
as the genius that he is. Namely, Sly Stone. He’s from Vallejo. He wrote a song called Stand, you’ve been sittin’ much too long, there’s a permanent crease
in your right and wrong. Stand as a midget standing tall and the giant beside him about to fall. Then he got theological, he said, stand as a cross for you to bear things to go through
if you goin’ anywhere. That is the agonistic struggle that sits at the center of paideia. It’s echoed in line
38a of Plato’s Apology: the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is painful. Now Plato didn’t add that
last line, I did, but– (audience laughing) I’m just building on
Malcolm X and the others. If you’re gonna examine
yourself it’s gonna be painful. It’s gonna hurt. And then line 24a of Plato’s Apology, when Socrates says parrhesia’s the cause of my unpopularity,
parrhesia is fearless speech, plain speech, frank speech,
unintimidated speech. You stand, straighten
your back up, get a spine and say what is on your
mind in a critical way, but also say it with enough feeling that you might be able
to inspire somebody. In my own tradition, the black tradition, we have what we call soulful kenosis, which is the self-emptying of oneself. So you begin full and
you end up very empty because you’re giving
everything that you have, whatever gifts you have,
intellectual, artistic, spiritual, giving all that you can
in order to empower, enable and to ennoble others. I used go to concerts with James Brown, that brother would perform
for four hours straight. And after every concert
he would always say, “I don’t exist without you,
I’m an extension of you, “you’re an extension of me. “Did anybody come here to
hear a song we didn’t play?” After four hours. Black sister in the back would always say, “You didn’t play Soul Power,”
he say, “Hit it, Bootsy!” Play the song right there. (audience laughing) ‘Cause they came to serve. They came to inspire. They weren’t spectacle, image. Lot of these concerts these days, I was at a Usher concert the other day. That brother came in
flippin’, I said brother, pick up the microphone and sing a song. (audience laughing) I didn’t come for no spectacle. Go to a Beyonce concert,
all kind of stuff goin’ on, sisters in formation,
I say just sing, girl. Sing! Aretha only need a piano and a microphone and she blows your mind. She don’t need all that spectacle. That’s superficial stuff. We not people of foliage,
we’re a people of fruit. And foliage is all about
what you look like, what you appear, what
seems to be the case. No, I wanna know what
fruit are you producing. So it is in education. The students, the texts, the dialogues. Are you changing lives? There’s a wonderful moment in
Plato’s Republic, line 5818e, he says what sits at the
very center of paideia is the turning of the soul. The turning of the soul
is a transformation, the fundamental
transformation that results from the contestation, interrogation of one’s assumptions and presuppositions. Montaigne the great early
European philosopher, Catholic brother, at least
most days of the week, he’s a complicated brother. Montaigne is the creator of
the genre of the essay itself. He says to philosophize
is to learn how to die. Seneca says he or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery. What are they talking about? That’s what sits at the center of paideia, learning how to die in
order to learn how to live. Because when you give up certain assumptions and presuppositions, that’s a form of death. And there’s no growth, maturation, no development without dying. While I come out of the Christian legacy, Jewish brother named Paul,
used to be called Saul, Christianity comes out
a prophetic Judaism. We don’t like to remember
that but let’s be honest. (audience laughing) The rich footnote to prophetic Judaism. Palestinian Jew named Jesus. Paul comes back and says
Christians better learn how to die daily. In order for new energy, new vision to sustain one, given a world that groans, given the overwhelming misery. I think one of the greatest
eulogies ever written for Martin Luther King
Jr. was April 5th 1968, by a vanilla sister named Dorothy Day, one of the great spirits
of the 20th century. She started off, “Martin Luther King Jr. “learned how to die daily,” period. Right as he’s shot, he’d already engaged in paideia, forever growing, developing, maturing so that that formation of
attention, attending to the things that matter, the cultivation
of a critical self, so that he can move from a
critique of American apartheid to a critique of American
imperial policies in Vietnam, a critique of US mistreatment
of Latin American countries and brothers and sisters, a critique of those in the Caribbean, a concern about women and one can imagine if he was still alive. Oh he would be embracing our precious trans folk, who oftentimes are the most
vulnerable group in our society. Spit on, rebuked, scorned, and this is not PC chitchat. This is a result of paideia. Trying to broaden. What that Hebrew scripture
meant when it said chesed that loving-kindness to
concern the orphan, widow, fatherless, motherless, widow, and allowing all of the vulnerable
ones to be the recipients of that loving kindness, not just in individual
and interpersonal way, but structurally and institutionally
in terms of movements. And willingness to sacrifice. Spiritual blackout. Normalized mendacity. Naturalized criminality. It’s one of the basic features of our day. You talk about Wall Street’s supposed to be a good
servant, often a bad master. Too much greed. Crimes committed, insider
trading, market manipulation, fraudulent activities, predatory lending. How many Wall Street
executives go to jail? Not one high executive. Naturalized criminality. Assassinate US citizens, no due process. Crime. Kill babies in Yemen and
Somalia, no dialogue about it. It’s crime. And of course the fact
that it’s a black president makes it more problematic,
though, doesn’t it? Even though black folks
say, “What, brother West, “don’t talk about it in that way. “You know, we gotta defend that brother.” Oh no I love the brother, but
if he’s committin’ a crime, he’s committin’ a crime. What was Tuesday night
about, those killing lists? You come up with who
you’re gonna zero in on. With Martin Luther King
Jr.’s face there in mora, observing the dialogue. Can you imagine the tears
flowing in Martin’s face? Where is the concern, or does
it just stop with one group as opposed, what makes us think that all of those babies killed in Somalia and in Pakistan and Afghanistan don’t have the same value as the vanilla babies
in Newtown, Connecticut? Or the brown babies in East Los Angeles? Or the black babies on
the south side of Chicago? Some of us went to
Sunday school and learned Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow black or white, they are precious in his sight. Where are the voices? What kind of paideia is
actually being enacted? Or is it the case that it’s only a nationalistic paideia? Only concerned about
the folk in the States? Oh but when the folks
outside of the States are being mistreated, can’t
say too much, no no no, because we got the flag. Nothin’ wrong with the flag, but that flag deserves to be Socrat-ized. That’s what brother Colin is doin’ when he’s when he goes down on his kne. Let’s Socratize that flag. We got some questions for you, America. That’s what Fannie Lou Hamer said, didn’t, “I question America,” she said. Not because America doesn’t have the best, but like any other national project it has the worst too and
it needs to be interrogated and questioned, and if
people think that somehow America is the central nation
or indispensable nation in terms of its citizens having more value than citizens in Ethiopia
or citizens in Ecuador then some of us are
gonna raise our voices, no matter how unpopular, in
a very plain and frank way. Why? Because that’s the tradition
from which we come. We not in it for popularity, we not in it to win prizes. We’re not in it to have a position. We’re in it because we choose to be certain kinds of human beings and to use whatever
gifts and skills we have to bring critique to bear,
beginning with ourselves. And so much of the spiritual
blackout inside our own souls and inside our own communities,
our own institutions, our own universities has to do with obsession with success rather than greatness, short-term gain and superficial success. So that we can allow the successful to be well adjusted to injustice and
well adapted to indifference. And that’s what has happened
in the last 40 years. When I first entered Harvard, 1% of population owned 20% of the wealth. Now 1% of population
own 42% of the wealth. We’ve found out in New York Times today, 1% of population had 20% of the income. We haven’t even got to wealth yet. What makes us think that any
kind of democratic project, always fragile, can remain afloat with that level of
grotesque wealth inequality? I mean we thank God for
brother Bernie Sanders. He hit it over and over and over again. He didn’t win, we won’t go into that now, but he’s coming out of
the Occupy movement, and we should note, in terms
of generational difference, that if American citizens under 30 were the only ones who could vote, brother Bernie Sanders would be in the White House right now. For me, that’s the sign of hope. not because a young fool
have a monopoly on wisdom. You just listen to their music and know they don’t have a Nat King Cole. (audience laughing) They don’t have a James Brown, they don’t have a Duke
Ellington or a Count Basie or a Mary Lou Williams, ’cause
music it’s too thin for me. But that’s all right. You got Kendricks. They got a few trying to
do some decent things. But when it comes to concerned about grotesque wealth inequality and its relation to the decrepit
schools in poor communities and working communities of whatever color but disproportionately
black brown and red, what makes us think that a democratic experiment
in an imperial context, I’ll call it imperial democracy, that’s what we’ve really been from the indigenous
people’s point of view, that’s what we’ve really
been from the point of view of the African slaves,
an imperial democracy. The expansion of land,
dispossession of land. Then the enslavement and Jim Crow. And these days that legacy is very deep. We’ve got Jim Crow Jr. this very moment. Michelle Alexander calls
it the new Jim Crow, but she’s just talking
about a component of it. She’s talking about the
mass incarceration regime, but I’m talking ’bout where
we live, schools we attend, religious institutions we spend time, social networks, still de
facto profoundly segregated. But not just by race, but by class. If you get just among
the black middle-class, there’s no doubt in my mind that if black middle-class
brothers and sisters under 20 were going to prison at the same level as the young poor black
brothers and sisters, there’d be a different kind of black middle-class leadership. Let some of the Jack and
Jill brothers and sisters go to jail at the same level as poor brothers and sisters in the hood, you’re gonna get different
kind of black leadership. Why? Because the black
professional class oftentimes have turned its back on the black poor, black working class. So class is real. It doesn’t erase legacies
of white supremacy, but it just shows when you
undergo professionalization, callousness and indifference can set in. The great Rabbi Abraham
Joshua Heschel used to say, “Indifference to evil is more
insidious than evil itself.” It creates a whole way of life, a rationale as to why you
ought not to be sensitive. And our own William James taught us so much about education and paideia. We should note William James, you know, he had no AB, he had no MA, and he had no PhD. You say, “Well, brother
West what did he have?” He had a MD, that was it, medical doctor. Became one of the great philosophers. A self-taught education, self-taught paideia. He used to say indifference
is the one trait that makes the very angels weep. That’s spiritual blackout, callousness, indifference, especially toward the vulnerable ones. That’s why 22% of America’s
children can live in poverty and one out of two of
black children under six live in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s spiritual blackout. No major movement against it. Where’s the voices against it? Didn’t hear it in the Democratic Party, certainly don’t hear it
in the Republican Party. Here we are, Trump era. Raw, coarse, neo-fascist tendencies escalating all the time. Rule of big money, big military. Scapegoat the most vulnerable, beginning with our precious
Mexican immigrants, Muslims, Jews, black folk, indigenous folk, trans, bisexuals, physically challenged, the vulnerable ones. THey’re the ones scapegoated as neo-fascist tendencies escalate every day. And that’s what I call
prophetic fight-back being our last hope. And I don’t believe in talking about hope, at all, it’s already been
colonized by neoliberals. Obama’s hope program was
the audacity of hope. He stole it from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. That’s not what Jeremiah
Wright had in mind but that’s a seminar, we want have time to get into that right now. Prophetic fight-back. There’s critical reflection, analysis of institutions and structures of predatory capitalism, imperial policies especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle
East and South America. And it’s in deeds, it’s in actions. It’s in what you are willing to pay, what cost you’re willing to bear. One of the things I learned in Ferguson as well as Charlottesville and Baltimore, the young folk who see me showing up and they know I’m old
school, they just look at me, and say, “Oh lord have
mercy, this brother, “he got the same old clothes
he was wearing in the 60s.” I said, that’s right,
that’s my cemetery clothes. I’m coffin-ready. (audience laughing) What about you, what about you? They say, “Oh, this Negro serious.” You ain’t lyin’. But I also come with that same tradition. You see when I come with
Russell Tompkins Jr., the Stylistics. I say, now this brother, he’s not a semblance
or a simulacra, a copy, he’s the real thing, he’s the original. Too many young folk got
copies and simulacra, imitation, imitation, emulation
in order to make money. Are you the real thing,
are you an original? “Yes I am, brother
West,” okay, that’s fine. Let’s test it, let’s see. Because I come from a
people where originality and improvisation, bein’ yourself, having the courage to put
your soul on the line, that’s what the Ray
Charles does every night when he was alive, he
put his soul on the line. It was different every night ’cause he was feeling different. Sometimes he broke up with his girlfriend, different kind of mood. Sometimes he’s seeing
things with his blindness, different kind of music. That’s what it is. That’s what kenosis is about,
but it’s soulful kenosis. It’s honest, it’s candid, it’s funky. It is suspicious of all
deodorized discourses, sanitized discourses,
sterilized discourses that don’t want to get into what Samuel Beckett call the mess. And the mess is what? Our lives. An education has got to be rooted in the formation of attention, the cultivation of a critical self, in the maturation of a compassion. And so dealing with the mess, the suffering, the insecurities,
the fears, the anxieties. And we do it in order,
in the end, one hopes what John Dewey called
the democratic project, creative democratic project. And it could be the case that we are witnessing not
just the decay and decline of the American empire, but when neo-fascist
tendencies adhere in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, we could be witnessing the demise of democratic projects. What a world I hand over
to our young people. The Anthropocene era. Ecological catastrophe,
nuclear catastrophe, escalating spiritual, moral, civic catastrophes where people even no longer are interested in cultivating the capacity
to love and laugh with rather than the capacity
for lust and to laugh at. That’s spiritual blackout. It’s real. So there’s no vulnerability and intimacy that leads to something grander. It’s just the next moment of manipulation, it’s the next moment of domination, it’s the next moment of conquest, it’s the next moment of being
the peacock who’s visible. I can hear Ma Rainey saying, “Peacocks strut because they can’t fly.” From a tradition of eagles. No ability to keep track of
what’s happenin’ on the ground, especially to vulnerable ones. Do we have what it takes? Thank God for the Askwith Forums. So we have a chance to
talk about it honestly, candidly, critically, you
pushing me against the wall, and I’m gonna push back
if I think I’m right. But I’m gonna acknowledge
your critique if I’m wrong. And I know I’m wrong in part because no one of us have a
monopoly on truth or goodness. And you can look at me and know I don’t have a monopoly on
beauty but my mother thinks so. (audience laughing) So I go out on a blue note. I am in no way optimistic,
I’m a prisoner of hope. And I don’t like to talk about hope. I try to be a hope. Try to be a force for
critical intelligence, a force for compassion, a
force for service to others. A force for a sacrificial
way of being in the world, while at the same time having a good time. Because I’m not a Puritan. (audience laughing) I’m a revolutionary Christian
but I’m not a Puritan. I’m gonna have a good time, god dangit. Oh, yes, indeed, indeed. So thank you all so very much. We’ll have a good time for dialogue. (audience applauding)
Thank you very much. Thank you very much. We’ll have a good time for
dialogue, back and forth. Yeah, indeed, indeed,
you’re very kind, very kind, very kind indeed. Very kind indeed. But questions, queries,
please do not hesitate. I’m sure there’s a number here
at this grand institution. Very much so. – [Woman] Such an honor to talk with you. – How you doin’ my dear sister? – Very well, I’m wondering if
you think we have a movement. We have a number of protests going on, and I’m wondering if you
think we have a movement. – Oh, appreciate that question. No we don’t have a movement. We’ve got motion and momentum, but we don’t have a movement yet. I’d like for there to be a movement. But movement is a very, very highly sophisticated
organization or attempt to bring power and pressure
to bear on the status quo with high-quality leadership persons feeling as if they’re
willing to live and die and being in it for the long run. We do not have that yet. The movement for Black Lives, for example, over 50 organizations together trying to generate enough motion and
momentum to create a movement. But it’s very, very difficult
to create a movement, especially under the conditions
of a surveillance state, in a security state, which has also been in place for 40 years, expanded in the last 15 years. So that as we know in the 1960s and 70s, you thought you had a
movement organization. You discover one out of
four are FBI informants. And then that repressive apparatus in which they’ll shoot you down like a dog if it looks as if your
movement is escalating. That’s also part of
neo-fascist possibilities. The repressive apparatus,
not just the police but the FBI and the various
spies inside of movements that make it very difficult
to sustain such movement. I think we have a chance
of creating movement, and some of us are willing to live and die to create those movements, but we’re not gonna
claim any easy victories. As Mary Cabrol used to say, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” No I don’t think we have a movement. We got wonderful awakening. The sleepwalking is being shattered, and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s a marvelous new militancy
in the younger generation, and some of the middle
generation and older generation are begininng now to wake
up from the sleepwalking that’s been in place for
the last 25, 30 years. So we might be headed for the movement. Now on the other hand,
you know the right wing, what do they say now, it’s about 1,005 white supremacist militia groups? And they don’t have a movement, they got 105 militia groups. Now that’s serious. That’s very serious. Even what we saw in Charlottesville, that was just a slice of ’em. Slice of ’em, some of us are on their list to be shot, do you know what I mean? We’ve been on there a long time. So it’s serious. But they don’t have a movement either. They fragmented. Though got motion,
though, and they got guns. They got guns. But there’s a good chance, hmm? – So what do we do–
– Oh, we keep trying to tell the truth, we keep
trying to bear witness. We keep trying to have
solidarity with one another and hold onto our integrity, honesty, decency, and generosity. And just get ready to live,
smile, and laugh, and die. (chuckling) Absolutely,
we’re gonna die anyway, so I mean, we might as well–
(laughing) We might as well use it for something. Absolutely, absolutely. But the important thing
is that you have progress. And that’s important. The familiarism that
William James talked about, there you do have progress. And the progress can be measured. As teachers, we were talking
about that in their podcast. As teachers, you touchin’
one precious soul. You’re in a classroom,
your awakening folk. You’re in your mosque or synagogue, you have an impact of prophetic, not that right-wing priestly version, but the prophetic
version, that’s progress. You’re teaching at Harvard
School of Education and all these magnificent students, you are touching them in deep ways. We got sister Dr. Ruth in here. She been touching folk for decades. For decades. She touched me and I’m
all the way in California and I’m a Christian,
not thinking a whole lot about sexuality all the time, but she’s helping me out on it. (laughing) Well that’s progress. But it’s you know, it’s micro-social,
you know what I mean. It’s person to person, group to group, it’s not revolution. I am a revolutionary. I believe in fundamental social change. There’s no way that people can live lives of decency and dignity without some fundamental transformation. I’m also a democrat, small D, so it has to be done democratically. So I’ve got to go around
try to awaken people, convince them this is the way to go. Be concerned about poor people, be concerned about working people. Defend the best of your
trade union movement. Because that’s the only thing they have against the power of capital
and so forth and so on. But that’s far, far,
far, far down the road, you know very much, I’m just being clear about what what I’m after in the long run. That fundamental transformation is required though, definitely. But thank you I’m sorry to go on. How would you answer your own question? Would you agree or disagree, you think? – I’m excited.
– That’s beautiful. Fired up? – Fired up.
– That’s beautiful. – I think people are using
social media tools for good. – Absolutely.
– To organize, in a very grassroots way. – Absolutely.
– And some of us have come out of retirement, from having been activists earlier. So I think that’s good.
– Oh. – The new sense of energy and generativity, like
you said, sort of showing some of the younger generations some of the tricks of the trade. – Yes, yeah.
– So there’s some transfer of knowledge and regeneration happening – [Cornel] I’m with you on that. – Thank you.
– Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Yes my dear sister, how you doing there? – Hello.
– Good to see you. – My name’s Dorothy, I met you when you did the
astonshingly amazing address for the Cambridge Upper
School graduating class. Yes. And it was an amazing experience for me. And I’ve been through
a lot of life changes, including stroke. I recently reconnected through
church here in Harvard Square with an old friend I had
met when I was very young. And his name is ee-fan-you me-kee-tee and I just yesterday found out that he was one of your teachers. – [Cornel] Yes, yes, yes. – For a long time.
– Oh, he’s a philosopher, and a poet, and he’s student of John Rawls, too. – He’s amazing.
– He’s amazing. Absolutely right.
– And so, it occurred to me, whet
I was thinking about something that he had
written that was supposed to be delivered as the keynote address for the International
Conference on African philosophy at University of Cape Town in August. And he ended up not going. But I connected with him about that. it was about the phenomenally valuable
African concept of ubuntu, which dictates, the simple South African translation is I exist because you are here. And so I was amazed that the address he was supposed to have delivered
at University of Cape Town was written 40 years ago. And it basically said
that in the African sense if we fail to connect with
each other, as people, and bond with each other as a community it is possible, in African view, to actually fail at being a person. And I was so struck by the
fact that 40 years later they wanted to discuss that in Cape Town. What blew my mind about it was that it seems so clear to me that this concept that was taught to me by many
South Africans, you know, I am because you are, is the key to our survival internationally. Because if we do not
start understanding that our relationships to each
other and to our communities are the key to our success, instead of just getting
out on our own path and running on a treadmill and trying to beat everybody else. We won’t fail as human beings. and so… – I know you getting to your question now. – I invite you to find a way
to connect with him about that. Together with you and with, and I think it could be a
very meaningful conversation that would educate… – Absolutely.
– The world. – Absolutely. You know I–
– and one other– – I agree. – The underlying things
for me is so important. Is that in this country
we have always looked to what we can do to help Africa. When we have been benevolent. That is what we’ve been doing And I really think the answer
to what we need as a universe is in Africa. – That we consciousness
that he was talking… But we gonna have to
go on, my dear sister. ‘Cause we got people who want to raise questions here though. But I hear you . – [Questioner] So I will try
to get in touch with you. – Absolutely. You be in contact with the Harvard degree, I’ll see you right after. I’ll see you right after,
absolutely I appreciate you, appreciate your words, very much so. I think this sister right
now, go right ahead. – I’m just so thankful
to be able to be here to hear you tonight and– – Thank you.
– I’m just in awe of your clarity of thought. It’s just amazing, but forgive the tremble in my voice I’m just– – [Cornel] Sure, would
you like some water? – Overtaken.
(laughing) – [Cornel] You drink some
of that, a little water. (laughing)
(applauding) – [Question] Just quick question. I’m getting kind of suspicious. Do you think that divisiveness and he convoluted pitting
blacks against white is to mask a greater underlying thing to herd the masses or to lead the masses in a greater way? – Oh absolutely, no doubt about it. No doubt about it. To use any ways in which, especially among the vulnerable groups, to make sure that they do
not come together with power on high moral and spiritual grounds. Very much so, definitely. Now of course it’s more
complicated than that until you’ve got internal strife
within Catholic community, Jewish communities,
black communities, brown. These are human beings, like anybody else. You got strife within the family. But when it comes to really
finding a common ground and especially a common ground that has moral and spiritual authority, that’s the crucial thing. Because common ground in and of itself is insufficient. It’s got to have a concern with integrity, honesty, decency, compassion
and with everybody so forth and so on, but no I agree
with you, definitely. Thank you for your, you’re
already, go ahead my brother. – Thank you, I should have
written down my questions. I can’t remember exactly
now, but I’ll try. – [Cornel] That’s all
right, you take your time. – When you’re listening, you
tend to, your mind wanders. One thing that I’ve noticed
with public discourse is people tend to get
defensive rather easily. And I think one of the issues
that people have nowadays is they don’t want to be
challenged, obviously. But they feel defensive when they are, because they tied their identity
with their ideas too much. What do you think is a
good way to engage people in a way that does not force
them put their head in the sand or become defensive, because
a lot of activism today is I think done without the tenderness. It’s done with a finger
pointing, jabbing nature. That is a blame game, almost,
and it stifles conversation. What is the rectification
for that sort of thing? – Now I appreciate that question. But there’s nothing wrong
with passionate dialogues because much is at stake. But it can’t be name-calling
and finger-pointing, because a Socratic dialogue
always begins with oneself. That’s what we love about James Baldwin. James Baldwin always engaged
in painful self-examination as he then spilled over
into examination of others. And when you engage in
painful examination, what does that mean? Hermeneutical humility, intellectual humility. Could be wrong, fallible. Nothing is immune to revision. And at the same time an acknowledgment that each and every one
of us need to be changed and transformed because no
one of us are fully awakened. Remember when Henry David Thoreau, he was actually David Henry until he hear Ralph Waldo Emerson give
that great divinity address, changed his life and changed his name. He’s like Henry, John Henry Clark, one of the great pan-Africanists. He went to see Pillar of
Society by Henrik Ibsen and changed his middle
name, John Henrik, with a K, Henrik with a K Clark,
because art can do that. It can change your life Sondheim can change your life. (audience laughing) You go into the woods with him. That’s what art does. And it also humbles you. So that vulnerability is part
and parcel of the dialogue. – [Questioner] Would you admit listening is a big part of conversation? – Absolutely.
– Before you even speak? – In fact it’s cultivating
the faculty of receptivity. You have to learn how to receive. That’s one reason why a lot of people can’t fall in love these days. They think love is just about giving and not learning how to receive. Authority given becomes
aggression rather than humble sharing. Dang, I’m kind of getting
deep up here, buddy. (audience laughing) I never said this kind of
thing in public at all. No you go right ahead. – [Questioner] Hey, I’m
single, so thanks for– – But I mean–
(audience laughing) You say what, you say what? – [Questioner] I said hey
I’m single, it’s okay. – No no no. – [Questioner] A little
bit of advice is okay. – Well I mean I already love
you, just not erotic, you know. (laughing) But part of it is see I come
out of a jazz tradition. You see you can’t be a monk on Coltrane or Mary Lou Williams without
learning how to listen. Because you can’t find your voice, you’re gonna be an echo your whole life if you don’t listen. You learn how to get your voice by bouncing off your voice of others, who learned how to get their voice. They’re just not echoes either. See what I mean?
– Yes sir. – And so that process of
learning how to listen and learning how to
share in your speaking, share in your gifts and so forth, it’s very much what this
love train is all about. This love of truth and
goodness and beauty. And as a religious person, for me it’s also love of the holy. That’s what I share with Rabbi Heschel, that’s what I share with
Muslim brothers, Malcolm X. That’s what I share, they
have a sense of the holiness interwoven with their sense of goodness and justice and so forth. But we need many, many more high-quality public conversations. I mean we’re living in a neoliberal era in which whatever is public is trashed: public education, public health, public conversation, public. It’s always privatize,
privatize privatize, militarize, militarize,
militarize, and financialize. Those are the three pillars
of the neoliberal project: privatize, militarize, financialize. Ooh, what about the children? Remember 1980 when they… Somebody in the cabinet of
Ronald Reagan was asked, when are we gonna deregulate television? So we can put anything
on television all day. It used to be regulated. Kids come home and watch Felix the Cat rather than some of
this stuff they got on. And he said, oh, the market
will take care of the children. That’s what was said. Look at what it wrought. No market can ever take
care of the children. See what I’m saying? Thank God Bertrand and Mimi had the love for this sister here. That wasn’t a market. They understood the role of the market, but it was love coming at Patti and her brothers and sisters. The care, the nurture, the
sacrifice, the service. No market can take care of the kids. No market can sustain your
love and so forth and so on. Markets have their role, I’m not anti-market in terms of markets playing a crucial role, If they have proper regulation, under ideas of justice, very much so. But this issue of public anything, publicness being held at arm’s length in our neoliberal soulcrafts,
our neoliberal sensibilities. It’s privatized all the way down. We just had, our sister Betsy
was here at Harvard right? She’s a marketeer, she’s a privatizer. She’s a human being,
so you don’t trash her, you go at her policies, her
vision, her sensibilities, her coldness and callousness. Because she is a neoliberal. It’s a way, speaking of neoliberal, remember the Republican Party. Ah neoliberalism is promiscuous. (audience laughing) It lies with a whole
lot of different folk. Go right ahead, though,
thank you so much my brother. – [Questioner] Thank you, sir. – Dr. West, it is such a
privilege here with you this evening.
– Bless, glad to see you, my brother. – And it’s even more privilege– – [Cornel] You got a lovely shine, I should say too, my brother. – Oh, thanks. – [Cornel] You working it
out, you working it out. Go right ahead though. – It’s a shine that reveals
how terrified I am right now to ask this question.
(laughing) I wonder if you have
anything stronger than water behind the podium that
you can share with me. I was hoping for a scotch or a bourbon. – [Cornel] Oh, you lookin’ for cognac, a little Courvoisier or Hennesy. All right, all right. – Here’s my question,
and I ask this question as someone who voted for
President Obama twice. How do you explain the Obama presidency? And I don’t mean, I’m not
asking for a critique of it. I’ve read and I’ve heard a
lot of what you’ve had to say about his presidency. But how do you explain more war, more income inequality, more deportations, more everything that I didn’t want to see more of, with such high hopes that
it would be different? Is it an obstructionist Congress? Is it just the Machine playing itself out and
no one person can… How do you explain what we’ve
seen over those eight years? – Imagine my dear brother,
we’d need a seminar for that. My dear brother Barack Obama,
he’s a brilliant brother. He’s got tremendous poise. He was the brilliant black face of the American empire in the way in which Trump is the know-nothing cruel white
face of the American empire. Still faces of the empire. Brother Barack has been blessed throughout his career to run against mediocre candidate. That’s a beautiful thing
if you’re a politician. McCain, Romney, it’s not the most difficult
candidates to overcome. And he won, I’m glad he did win. I support him too, critically. But then he gets in there, oh I’ve got the meeting of March 2009, only been in there two months, he’s meeting with the
13 CEOs of Wall Street. What does he say? I stand between you and the pitchfork. But I want you to know I’m on
your side, I will protect you. No, that’s what you say to poor people. That’s what you say to black people, that’s what you say to women. You don’t say that the
CEOs of Wall Street. And then you bring in a Wall Streeter, Eric Holder, from Covington, to be the police, no accident. He’d been playing golf
with him all his life, all his professional life. It’s multiracial, yeah you
got some colorful colorfulness up there among the elites, a little bit. So in that sense it was clear,
he’s Wall Street friendly. He bails out Wall Street,
Doesn’t bail out homeowners. right away. And it’s clear that, coming
out of Robert Rubin’s legacy, of my dear brother Larry
Summers, God bless him, God be with him. He moves right into the White House. He’s a Rubin-ite. Brilliant, smart, sharp neoliberal. And then issues of race. Well I can’t do too much, I
can’t talk about race too much because I’ll be tarred
and feathered by Fox News. They’re gonna tar and feather
you no matter what you say. You better stretch out
and do what you got to do. How long does it take to get to the prison industrial complex? The seventh year. Deodorized meeting. Just the nonviolent ones
who are about to get out rather than the masses
of those who get caught in such a system. And we can go on and on
and on, the drone strikes. 45 under Bush, they called
Bush a war criminal. 506 under Obama. Somebody call him a war criminal like me, they wan’ string me up. I say, I stand accused. String me up. I’ma be morally consistent. I call Bush a war criminal,
I call Obama a war criminal. Trump, you can imagine. (audience laughing) He hardly get in there,
he meets the criteria. You know what I mean? But it’s just being morally consistent. Or what Jane Austen call
constancy in her great novels. Integrity. That’s what you get of
Elizabeth and Ann and the others in those novels, you see. And that’s part of my tradition too, in terms of trying to be virtuous. So that to tell a story
about the neoliberal, brilliant, poised black
face of the American empire who gave tremendous hope to so many of us, especially black people. Especially black people. Then black folk look
around eight years later? Well we had symbolic
representation, that was nice. And they did, I don’t
downplay that, symbols matter. I got daughters, I got grandkids. Symbols do matter. His brilliance cannot be denied. His poise cannot be denied. But also he’s got choices to make. Is he gonna side with poor
vulnerable working people? If you got Martin in there, then that’s the that’s the move. Put Whitney Young in there,
get Martin out of there. We got a whole lot of Negroes in the past who didn’t side with the
vulnerable, put them in there. Not Martin, no no. No, no, you’re not gonna
bastardize that brother who gave his life. 39 years, 37 times in jail. In a paddy wagon for four and a half hours with a German Shepherd, all by himself, trying to bite him. Brother Andy Young told me when Martin got out of that paddy
wagon in Reedsville prison, he couldn’t even walk. He didn’t know hardly who he is. All he could say is, “This
is the price we must bear “for the freedom of our people.” That’s love at its deepest level. Don’t play with Martin, don’t play with Fannie Lou, if you’re gonna be a
neoliberal politician. That’s why I got upset. That’s like people trying to convince you Kenny G is John Coltrane. No he’s not. (audience laughing) Well people these days trying to say brother Coates is James Baldwin. No he’s not. He’s Coates, he’s talented, he’s sharp. He’s not James Baldwin. Usher’s not Donny Hathaway. Neyo’s not Luther Van Dross, I mean let’s
keep our standards in place. Just ’cause you have spiritual blackout don’t mean all of a sudden
the standards collapse. There’s something called excellence. There’s something called
unbelievable giving of gifts at the highest level. That’s Martin, not because Martin is God. Martin was a human
being like anybody else. But don’t mobilize them in such a way that you’re doing things
that’s tiied to the well to do. So in that sense you’re
can imagine my critique for eight years with Barack Obama, it’s
basically the same. – [Questioner] So do you think
he couldn’t give those gifts? Or he wouldn’t give those– – I think he made choices. Now what went into the
choices, I don’t know, ’cause I don’t know what’s
inside the brother’s soul. I think there’s probably a
sense in which Barack Obama, he is what you get in
the neoliberal culture, which is a highly smart,
polished professional. He’s not a love warrior. See a love Warrior’s
willing to live and die. But professionals, they gonna do what they can
relative to their careers, in terms of checking to
see what what’s out there. There’s a difference
between being a thermostat and a thermometer. The thermostat’s gonna shape
the climate of opinion. And the thermometer is
just gonna reflect it. What’s go, what should I do? Let me check what the poll is,
let me see what’s going on. Oh, I see. Can you imagine Curtis Mayfield music if he just checkin’
What’s out there? Never won a Grammy, Milli Vanilli won two. (audience laughing) Sly Stone never won a Grammy,
Milli Vanilli won two. Checkin’ to see what’s out there. What are you feeling deep
down inside, brother Barack? That’s what I wanted to know. The one time I got a chance, I said, do you understand the crisis? You understand the state of
emergency that’s going on in poor people and black
people in prison and so forth? I see you spent a lot of
time with the well to do. I wanna know, my brother. Then he cussed me out, I say
I appreciate it, you know. I deserve it, I been comin’ at you. But what it is is that soulful honesty. So that five, 10, 15
years from now he say, “Oh brother, West you know you said things “you know you shouldn’t have said, “but history has shown “that you were tilting in a direction “that people should take notice of.” Now I don’t do it for that. I’ll do it because at
that particular moment, I was raised a certain way. And I’m not gonna be untrue to that. I’ma be true to the best that I can be before the worms get to me. That’s a long answer, we
gonna be much quicker– Go right ahead my dear sister. Let her in. – So I’m from St. Paul, Minnesota. – Oh yes.
– Yeah. As you can imagine, there
have been many protests there. I’ve been to some of them. I just want to know what you think about protests in general. If you think it’s the next
step, if you think it’s a step, or what happens after we
have the tough conversations? And especially when it’s
criminalized so quickly like black, white, everywhere
in between, everybody. – Yeah, no, I appreciate the question and salute so many wonderful
things going on in St. Paul as well as Minneapolis and oh
we’ve missed brother Prince. But no education is always just
one particular manifestation of a care and a concern. Got to have education, you got to have critical consciousness. You have to have political sensibilities. Most importantly, you’ve got to have a spiritual and moral wind at your back, so you don’t just get caught in a debate about politics and public policy and forget about what
ought to be motivating you in terms of the crisis that’s out there, social misery and suffering and so forth. So that I think protests
are a beautiful thing again, but you never want to fetishize anything. You never want to ascribe magical powers and think that somehow it can
be salvific in and of itself. Not at all. And a lot of times it’s
coalition, all right. You’ve got a lot of different
voices in any protest. A variety of different
voices in any protest. And that’s how protests are. You just make clear what you’re there for and what you’re standing for. And then move back into
your everyday context where the struggle goes on and you holding on to your
magnificent and integrity and honesty and decency. – Thank you.
– Go right ahead, my sister. – Thank you my name is Katherine Jenkins. It’s an honor to be here, but
it’s also especially an honor knowing that my son and his friend are able to be here as well. I’ve been thinking a lot
about the nation-state, that construct, recently, and when you said that
we might be at the end of the democratic project worldwide, my mind went immediately to what I hope is the coming
end of the nation-state. And what brings me there
is, of course if we look at the history of this country. The first Africans brought to Jamestown were actually rebels against
an expanding super-state in central Africa, so
they were essentially trying to fight that power. And then if I embrace Sankofa and apply it to my own
ancestors in Europe, I see that they were
deprived of their humanity in terms of their connection to ancestry and one another and
earth in their traditions by the nation, the nascent nation-state in cahoots with the Catholic Church. And then I also thinking about your values that you’re expressing like democracy and empathy. It’s hard to have that in a nation-state system, let alone one of our size, let alone one with the
extremely problematic and fucked-up history that it has. So I just wanted to hear
your thought, and also like if you if you look, say at
Black Lives Matters’ platforms, a lot of them seem to be dancing around the problematic
of all these structures of the nation-state. So I was wondering what
you think about that and then an addendum to that question, if you think yes that’s
where we should be headed, is not paying taxes this
April our first step? ‘Cause I can tell you I do
not want to give any money to this man and I don’t
feel like I can honor my ancestors and descendants by doing that. So I wanted to hear your
thoughts, thank you. – Well thank you so much, indeed, indeed. Boy, you raisin’ Henry
David Thoreau question about those taxes. (audience laughing) No, I think that Max
Weber rightly taught us that the nation-state has monopoly on
instrumentalities of violence and and it does provide regulation through its institutions of
administration and bureaucracy. Human beings, we are the kind of persons who have a deep desire for protection, association and recognition. If we can come up with
sets of institutions that can protect people, that allow them to associate in such a way that it doesn’t put others down, and allow them to be
recognized in such a way that it doesn’t subordinate
others, then yes. For me my internationalism, which is different than cosmopolitan, but my internationalism is
at a moral, spiritual level. So I’m concerned about all human beings and even sentient beings
in a broader sense. But when it comes to getting
beyond the nation-state, we really can’t use serious language unless we can come up with
ways in which people would feel that their desire for
protection, association and recognition, those desires are satisfied and fulfilled. – [Questioner] Didn’t the
Black Panthers start to do that before they were destroyed by the CIA? And the FBI?
– Yeah, but what’s interesting
about the Panthers, though, is that the Black Panther
Party, and I was blessed to work very closely with
them, both in Sacramento as well as there in Jamaica
Plain and Norfolk Prison where I was blessed to
teach for three years when I was here, that they also had a nationalist dimension to their revolutionary politics. If a black nationalist,
see they’re saying, the US nation-state can’t protect us, we need a nation-state to protect us. It’s still nationalist. In that way. For me, nationalism is a kind
of idol, but I understand that idols can be
enabling in various ways, especially when people must be protected. And when a nation-state for
example is coming at you, then you flee. Look at our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jew-hating Europe, Jew-hating Germany. You got to get the hell out of there, they trying to kill everybody. What do you do when you have, you go to a place where you
get security and safety. you need protection in that way, and this has been the history of oppressed peoples, persecuted people. Chief, Sam, Garvey and the others, the United States will never protect us. The masses of black people
will always live lives of ruin and disaster in America, that’s what Garvey used to
say all the time, right. So what you gonna do, Marcus? We goin’ to Africa. Well there’s some people over there. You can’t just say you goin’ somewheres. We already did that to Liberia. We going to Liberia,
there’s Africans there. And you gonna have a choice, just like our Jewish brothers
sisters had a choice. You can either coexist the
way Albert Einstein wanted, or you dominate, the
way Jabotinsky wanted. And you get this struggle within these various oppressed communities. If you goin’ somewhere, are you gonna coexist with
the folk who are there? And treat them with dignity
and want them to treat you? Or are you gonna dominate them? Negroes went to Africa, Liberia. They subordinated, didn’t they? Rename the country. Can you imagine renaming the
capital after James Monroe? Monrovia?
– Ironic. – Yeah, you say oh, Lord, bringin’ all that
American baggage with you. Please. Good God, you already saw what
happened with the Puritans. Can’t you improve upon that? But it’s understandable,
without being justified, in the sense that they’re
looking for somewhere to be protected, recognized, acknowledged. Live without fear and attack and so forth. And I’m with you, we must
transcend the nation-state, but what kinds of
institutions would deal with need for order, police or
whatever the community police, it’s all the different forms. Anarchists, for example,
fascinating intellectual tradition. We don’t need the nation state, we have voluntary associations. We have workers councils and so forth. Visions of Proudhon and a host of others. Bayard Rustin was a anarchist who worked very closely
with Martin in that regard. Very suspicious of the nation-state. I accept the insights of the anarchists, I just don’t see my precious
anarchist brother and sisters generating an alternative
institutional framework to deal with people’s
desire for protection. So the best you can do is
democratize the nation-state. Make sure that those who
are governed have voices so that there’s accountability. The distinctive feature of empires, the victims are never given account of, the right to render
the elites accountable. Oh the elites are always
unaccountable to the victims. That’s why I’m anti-imperialism. No matter where, but that’s
just beginning of an answer. But we just got a few more questions here, then we gonna end up, yes, go right ahead. – Yeah, thanks for talking Dr. West. I’ve enjoyed your talks
and thoughts from Australia and Singapore.
– From Australia? – Yeah
– Wow, way down to the south. – So my question is do you think that people
who are turning towards neoliberalism, turning towards fascism turning away from the vulnerable, turning away from the oppressed, do you think they’re doing it out of fear of losing
something they already have? Or are they doing out of
fear of not getting something that they thought they
might get in the future? And do you think that the
oppressed and the vulnerable can get more without
the others getting less? – Boy, that’s a wonderful question. I mean one is anytime we
historicize and contextualize, you have to pluralize, which means that a variety
of different reasons, people do things for very very different arguments, visions and so forth. There is a responsibility that the Left has to take very seriously, which is that we on the
Left have not been able to provide an alternative
vision that’s credible, so people feel as if it’s realizable. And so no matter how much
our critiques can be heard, if they don’t feel as if
there’s an alternative, then they look at the limited projects, what the great William
James called live options. Which options are really live? Credible, realizable? And if the only live
options are neoliberal X, xenophobic Y, they’re caught in between. They don’t like either, but the Left seemingly doesn’t provide anything credible that
they can follow through on. Now things are changing, I
mean, England for example. In others there’s expansion on the left, a few other European countries, but for the most part
everyday people and citizens find it very difficult to take seriously the Left’s constructive vision. Not the critique, the critique cuts deep, but what kind of constructive
vision do you have? Alternative institutions in place? There’s a echo again of this issue about gettin’ beyond the
nation-state and so on. But you can imagine, you know, we got over 300 million fellow citizens, a lot of different reasons why right-wing brothers and
sisters do what they do. Some just can’t stand Negro,
just can’t stand black folk. That’s just a slice of ’em. That’s not the majority. Now it’s not the majority, not at all. That was the case 50, 75 years ago. A lot of white brothers and sisters who marched in Charlottesville,
they grandparents. You ask them what do you
think about Jamal and Leticia? They’d tell you in a minute. – Do you think the
rhetoric can be more of, well if you give more rights
to this group of people you’re not actually gonna lose anything? Is that gonna be some, a more– – [Cornel] No. – Another way of communicating? – No, ’cause if you have
excessive privilege, you’re gonna have to,
once it’s democratized, you have to give something up. What you have to convince them is, is that it’s very much like the culture… So much of the culture’s a
joyless quest for pleasure. So you say, why don’t you opt for a 01 joy and give up on some pleasure? Try it out. And that’s very much what people end up when they get drug addicted. They go to AA and so forth and so on. Insatiable addiction. Stimulation, insatiable titillation. Give up on some stimulation and try a little TLC, tender loving care. Now see sister Dr. Ruth will
break that down in a minute. That tender loving care can
go, isn’t that true, my dear? That goes a long way. You don’t need all those partners. Just zero in on one
and get the real thing. I mean I’m not saying that
that’s the only project, but I mean, so you do give up on
something, absolutely. Absolutely. You don’t need all of that stuff. You can’t take it with you. What kind of person are you gonna be? – Thank you.
– That’s just beginning, but that’s, oop, we gonna wind down. Take your time, my
brother, go right ahead. – Hello, I’m Che. – [Cornel] Good to see
you though, brother. – It’s good to see you too. So I didn’t actually know
who you were, before this. – [Cornel] Oh, that’s good
wonderful, that’s wonderful. You found out I’m a Mama’s
child and Daddy’s kid, right? – Exactly, exactly.
– There you go. – But sort of from like
hearing what you said, I got the impression that
you know you’re someone who really cares about minorities
and like all this stuff. And you’re also sort of, you value, I forgot the word that you use but it was something about
the soul and you know– – [Cornel] Oh, the soul-craft. What kind of person you are, yeah. – Exactly. – Earlier you’re talking about nowadays there’s a lot of
people who don’t have that like those morals and ethics and the sort of passion to
you know create a movement and all this stuff. I go to Boston Arts Academy, right. I know a lot of kids who are very passionate
about different things. I feel like I see a lot of soul and definitely, just so much passion. I was just wondering, how would I go about or how would you go about start trying to gather all these people who are definitely passionate, definitely willing to
you know sacrifice a lot to serve, create a movement speak out against different things. – [Cornel] Well one is that this is one of the roles of education to make sure that precious
young folk like yourself are exposed to examples of greatness. Movements, struggles, great institutions. The great mosques, the great
synagogues, the great churches. of great trade unions and
the great individuals. Somebody like Myles Horton. You read his autobiography, The Long Haul. Great example of courage, compassion. Read the biography of, who would be some of the others? Who we think would be… The Berrigan brothers. What is it about Daniel and Phil that they could remain
such long-distance runners, concerned about poor and working people? On and on and there are examples. Immanuel Kant says in the
Critique of Pure Reason examples are the gold card of judgment. So that the judgments that
we make are deeply shaped by the examples. That’s what Plutarch a book on, lives, and why Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, representative men, the
sense of the great examples. If you’re gonna be a great, great artist, you want to be connected with the great ones in the past. They’re examples, what went
into their shaping and so forth? See what I mean? That’s the important thing right now. How old are you now little brother? – I’m 15.
– 15? Oh, yeah, you–
(audience applauding) you ahead, you ahead,
though, brother, you ahead. Thank you so very much, though– – [Questioner] Also really
quick, really quick, I just want to say that
I’m a theater major at Boston’s–
– Oh, theater too? – [Questioner] Yeah and I saw
you were in the Matrix and– (audience laughing)
– Oh, yes, that’s true. (audience applauding) (Cornel laughing) Thank you so much. (laughing) Indeed, thank you all so very much. And let’s give it up
for the Askwith Forum. (audience applauding) Absolutely, absolutely. (audience applauding)
(Cornel laughing) (audience applauding)

43 thoughts on “Askwith Forum: Cornel West – Spiritual Blackout, Imperial Meltdown, Prophetic Fightback”

  1. "Trump…is not the cause. He's the sign and the symptom. Donald Trump is as American as apple pie. Whole lot of Donald Trumps been in place. He's not the first such white brother I have encountered. Narcissism, no empathy. Spectacle, no substance. Long history of white male mediocrity in high places." 21:35

  2. 1:20:32 Wow! That grandma with her cheap 99cent earrings and spiral notebook, looks like she just step out of the trailer park. Well, I guess nowadays, everyones a philosopher!

  3. 'Cultivating the faculty of Receptivity' – yes, that's what's so vital to the compassionate-creative human understanding on display here, and so missing from positivistic 'smartness'

  4. "The unexamined life is not worth living." How prophetic. The President Elect is incapable of this. He is soooo very fearful. I feel like many brothas of european decent are so very fearful. Insecurity pouring out of every young or under enlightened voice.

    "I want my country back, and make America great again." So much insecurity. It's both tragic and sad. Instead of turing to their brother and sisters of color for help. Some fight them, and some fight their souls. The moment you discover your not the master race, and that the world is evolving past your once proud reign lol.

    Tragic comedy at it's finest. I still love them, though many of them hate me. My soul is clean, and I invite them in if their willing to listen, but Mr. Trump. I'm afraid we never recover Mr.Trump.

  5. Love you and what you do I seek and thrive to be a vessel of greatness to my brothers and sisters I'm surrounded by stagnated powerful people I will dig deep into them until the point of being dragged down with them but I must arise to the occasion of moral importance amongst my peers I will be better because of you thank you.

  6. I have a question why would I start getting blocked from some of cornel speeches…I left good comments I saw him today in Fontana ca

  7. He is an eloquent speaker.It does seem that he drifts off from his topic here and there but if you follow his speech attentively you will find coherence delivered in a beautiful way. I admire his way of truth telling and i salute Dr west

  8. Thank you, Mr. Cornel, for also defending us transgender people, especially, of color. Thanks for listening, paying attention, and recognizing our struggles as well.

    We ARE the most vulnerable in society, and (most) people still don't care. The masses keep believing the lies, and propaganda about us that we are "mentally unstable" for being our true gender.

    Yet, and still, some/most of those people who are brwinwashed are the same ones who (try to) mess with us sexually, and still be wilfully disrespectful, ignorant, immature, and uneducated when it comes to trans-GENDER people.

    As a black, and trans-WOMAN, those types of straight "men" have approaced me in public when they are by themselves, or with their male friend(s) by hitting on me in sexual manners, and don't think – nor care to realize how they come off.

    That's also male patriarchy. I've had to either ignore said straight "men" – and or put them in their place. They pretend as if they "actually""genuinely" – and "really into" us transwomen when they aren't any of those positive energies towards/with us.

    Transwomen of color are killed/murdered by brainwashed straight so called trans-"attracted" males in grown bodies AFTER they've been/mesed with said transwomen.

    Most of us still can't, don't, and won't get offered either jobs, housing, health care, or all of the above…..

  9. Yuck.
    This man’s entire character is a silly cliché. While I hope everybody becomes a scholar and get a doctorate etc. etc., the educated pastor-like overly-slick demeanor using drawn out multi-syllabic words to say incredibly basic things and using idiotic rhyming mantras demeanor is a fossil that needs to be retired.

    In the very short period of time that I’ve walked this planet, I’ve learned that anyone that calls you ‘brother’ has ulterior motives.

  10. HEY NIGGA, WHY WON'T YOU DESTROY HARVARD OR BE LIKE JESUS AND DESTROY YOUR CAREER FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS? THOSE INSTITUTIONS ARE CITADELS, BEACONS OF QHITE SUPREMACY. THEY PIMPING YOU. YOU SHOULD HELP DESTROY THEM. THAT'S LOVE OF SELF, ANCESTORS, AND MOTHER TONGUE.

  11. This man, when he speaks our mind starts and runs like a V12 engine. Love to listen. It’s an honour to see him on computer or whatever device.

  12. This man is a very, very deep well…and also very funny. I adore the crap out of him and am SOOOO going to listen to more of his stuff. I can learn a lot.

  13. I can always rely on Dr. West to remind me of what is true and important while I live in this sick and insane country.

  14. Fantastic speech. Why is a troll who cannot even speak into a microphone been given 4 whole minutes to mumble ? ( 56:56 – 1:00:56 )

  15. I was not a fan of Obama but for what we have in the White House I’m starting to wonder if trump was part of there plan

  16. It's refreshing to cut the daily distracting nonsense with thought provoking reasoning. Dr. West is resonating on a higher frequency and if you listen long enough you can't help but be in sequence.

  17. Although I have no ties to Harvard other than education itself, I still get to enjoy this speech from the comfort of my home. Nice!

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