Finding Courage in Catastrophic Times: An Interview with Cornel West

“The neoliberal era in the United States ended with a neofascist bang,” Professor Cornel West wrote in an article for- the Guardian titled, “Goodbye, American neoliberalism. A new era is here”.

Just four days following this “neofascist bang,” I had the opportunity to chat with Professor West at the Nassau St. Starbucks. As a student in his freshman seminar, I was couldn’t have known we would be discussing Donald Trump, the President Elect, when, three weeks earlier, I asked in all my Midwestern shyness if he might, during his few free hours on campus per week, have time to talk over coffee.

During our hour-long conversation, we did not speculate about cabinet appointments, polling failures, voter turnout, or all the artificial analyses conjured by a reeling mainstream media. Instead, we talked much closer to home, as a professor to a student, as a ‘prominent and provocative democratic intellectual’ to an intellectual-in-formation, as an experienced advocate to a young (aspiring) progressive activist. At the core of our conversation were the questions: what does it mean to be here now? What does it mean to be a student, a Princeton student, a progressive Princeton student, and a nineteen-year-old in ‘catastrophic’ times?

In the public media, you are given the titles of philosopher, academic, professor, social activist, author, and “public intellectual.” Is there one of these identities to which you feel more strongly tied or that you came to first?

“At an early age, I fell in love with the life of the mind, but I also felt a powerful need to be a force for good on the ground. I could spend all the day in the library, but to be a force for good I need to be on the streets, in the churches, in the mosques, in the public spaces. I need to live a life in creative tension, and there is a tension there. But I can’t do without either.

I try to learn from those towering figures who came before: Emerson, John Dewey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Nader. I read their biographies. I ask – how did they negotiate these roles? But, in the end, I, like you and everyone else, must find my own voice. I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in places like Princeton that allow me to live in that creative tension.”

Have you ever felt a pull to retreat? That is, a desire to live just that intellectual life, in the libraries or classrooms, away from the crowds and the streets?

“I write books. When I’m writing, there’s that sense of being glad to be in a quiet, still space. But when I’m in that kind of space I feel the pull of the public work, pulling me back to the streets. It goes the other way too. When I’m in jail, in a church, I think, ‘I wish I had time to reread that Plato or that Chekhov.’ It cuts both ways, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it is to live a life in creative tension.”

Do you think intellectuals or academics have a responsibility to make their work accessible to a wider audience, available outside of college campuses, or, specifically, outside the Fitz Randolph gates? 

“I think most in academia feel an obligation to engage in a quest for truth, a quest for knowledge at the highest level. To preserve the integrity of that quest and to try to make it available universities publish – Princeton University Press is one of the best. Some things that it publishes have wide accessibility and some don’t. And that’s okay. I think most academics feel a commitment to excellence in the realm of ideas, and that’s a kind of integrity.”

The election left many students shocked and asking what we can do, how we can navigate the concurrent roles of citizen and student. How does Princeton as a university and community encourage students to be democratically engaged?

“Well, Princeton gives a week off prior to elections. Whether students use it for that sort of stuff or not, that shows, as an institution, Princeton wants students involved in the democratic process. However, Princeton is still subject to same forces as any university – market forces, the commodification of everything, commercialization, everything and everybody for sale.

As a community it must create some countercultural options for integrity not just cupidity, for seeking love of truth, love of good, and love of beauty, not just money, status, and power. At its best, Princeton will always be cutting against that grain. And this is not just one political ideology doing the talking. You can be conservative and against commodification and commercialization – that’s what brings both parties together. Individuals can be committed to the quests for truth and knowledge and still have different ideological views. Integrity doesn’t have one specific ideology.”

As a Princeton graduate, a social leader, and an educator, what tools or skills would you hope a student develops by the time they walk across the stage at graduation?

“One, the cultivation of critical intelligence. The shattering of parochial and provincial ways of looking at the world.

Two, compassion and courage. A willingness to expand the scope of empathy, to cut against the grain and the temptation to be well-adjusted to injustice.

Three, a historical humility. That students recognize that all parts of the history of the species are shot through with fallibility. That they recognize that we are all falling short in a real way.

I don’t know if these are tools or just wise ways of being, of being forces for good in the world. They are the raw stuff for any democratic experiment—and the United States is a fragile democratic experiment. This election will be a major, major challenge. We can lose rights so quickly, rights that took decades to acquire and preserve.”

How should we as college “progressives” respond?

“Shatter complacency. Shatter apathy. We do not want denial of any of the challenges. We need a robust Socratic dialogue, a critical exchange between students of different ideological perspectives. Learn and listen; learn how to listen. Learn how to argue. Learn how to articulate vision. That’s what democracies are, they are very messy affairs in which persons are arguing over the public life, good, and destiny of a social experiment.

As a progressive – well I think I’m more than a progressive, I’m a revolutionary Christian and that cuts it even deeper. [Progressives should be] very concerned with how to create multiracial coalitions that are concerned about global warming, inequality, different forms of domination – and how to enact resistance to all these forms of denomination. I’m talking about white and male supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism. We need to be morally consistent. Domination is domination. You have to be willing to go into places you are not used to because you can’t just be a one issue or a two-issue person. This is a challenge to progressives. A lot of times want to be concerned with income inequality and not deal with outcomes of U.S. foreign policy. But, the truth is the poor white person in Cleveland is just as precious as the peasant in Bolivia, as the poor woman in Tel Aviv, or poor black person in Trenton. We must have that international perspective of justice.

But, all that being said, I want to stress this for students here at Princeton: you need to learn how to find joy not just pleasure. The pleasures available in our society are almost infinite, but the sources of joy are drying up. Joy is really about how you are able to have a quality connection with other people, not just stimulation. You must learn how to receive care and give the same. So much of United States culture is a joyless quest for pleasure. I’m thinking of the blues, John Coltrane, Mahalia Jackson; students need to be in contact with those dimensions, those creative, soulful depths in order to not be overcome with despair and depression. Joy is what sustains you in face of catastrophe.”

How do you balance that, the sensitivity to injustice and the joy? As an activist and as an educator, how do you balance challenge and comfort for both yourself and your students?

“We confront the great voices of the past who are part of this legacy, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and [Rabbi A.J.] Heschel, and we wrestle with their challenge to us. We must read them critically and in subtle and nuanced ways, ways in which they push us—and we must have a response. We must be responsive and responsible readers who take their examples seriously, who engage in counter arguments and take responsibility for our counterarguments. And we must hope that process makes us better persons, not just persons who can gain access to good grades, but access to more compassionate lives.

However, we must acknowledge that all exemplary figures have shortcomings. Not any one has a monopoly on truth. All of us are involved in an endless quest for truth. At same time, because these figures have spent so much time wrestling with these issues, more than we have, we must acknowledge they have a certain kind of authority. When Heschel is wrestling with what it means to be prophetic, he has something to say. He has something to say we just haven’t thought about. We can be open to their tremendous power and insight and wisdom and still have some critiques. But we acknowledge them as canonical texts, not because their authority doesn’t need to be argued, but because, once you do, you can see in their thinking and in their action why they are authoritative.”

How can we be unified as a student and campus community in our response to the election?

“There are certain basic things we should all agree on. Each and every one of us has a significance and a status that requires respect. We cannot enter into a dialogue with those who think there’s a certain group of people for whom we ought to have no respect at all. A Socratic dialogue still requires some certain basic assumptions that we all hold; I think for the most part that is true at Princeton. I don’t think there are people who are misogynistic to the core. We have sexist, patriarchic folk, but not totally sexist, patriarchic folk. I don’t encounter that at Princeton at all. Racism and sexism are different than a kind of fascist perception in which some persons have no significance whatsoever. We can acknowledge in that regard some of the progress that we’ve made. In a Socratic dialogue, we will have conflict, but that’s good. We need to have a challenging discussion about income inequality, taxes, abortion, TPP, foreign trade, all the different issues.

Progressive folk cannot be in denial about our relative defeat – and for Sanders to lose the primary, for Trump to win over Clinton is, in fact, a major defeat. What we do is we learn from this defeat and preserve our integrity and hope and willingness to fight and argue so we don’t cave in and don’t give up. We have to be long distance runners in struggle for truth and justice. I recall in 1980 I felt the same thing when Reagan won. Here we are, thirty-six years later, with the triumph of Trump. It was different here in the eighties, the early nineties; it was a different moment here, then. Reagan unleashed unbelievable conservative forces among young people on campuses. When I was here in the early seventies, we were very much a liberal leftist generation in the sixties and seventies. We were anti-war, racism, and sexism. This shifted in eighties and nineties. It’s my generation [that] produced Trump.

Since [the eighties, we] have had some breakthroughs and some setbacks: this is a major one. The beautiful thing is if the only people who could vote were those young folk, those under thirty, Sanders would be president. That puts a smile on my face.  That’s a tremendous sign of hope.”

***

I left our conversation reminded of the simple fact that we are surrounded not just by textbook knowledge but by wisdom. Just as Professor West looks back and up to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Heschel, to the traditions of the past that point to more just possibilities for the future, we, too, have the opportunity to find our role models, our imperfect exemplars.

In our traditions, we encounter those who have witnessed the rise and fall moments as, and even more, critical than our own. Their voices remind us that we are the products of a long histories of complacency and resistance, and that there will be times after “Brother Donald.” They remind us that our historical moment demands that we, as students in this moment and citizens of this nation, engage in more than just “education.” It is calling us, as Professor West often says, to undertake the art of “soul craft.”

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